There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.
Quien va a Santiago y no a San Salvador, sirve al criado y deja al Senor.
He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, honors the servant and forsakes the Lord.
I saw these words painted onto the wall of the albergue in La Robla. It was the end of my first day walking the Camino de San Salvador, and I knew remarkably little about what to expect of the 120km route, and I was walking it alone. What did the words mean? I snapped a photo but quickly I pushed them to the back of my mind; all I could focus on was my hunger, the strain in my legs, the eerie quiet of the albergue.
I walked the San Salvador in late July 2016, with little knowledge of the route. I knew where it would begin and where it would end, I had a 13-page guide written in 2010 saved onto my phone. The route began in Leon, and like I’d done on past Camino’s, I found my first yellow arrow and just started walking.
It all worked out in the end; I made it through the mountains, I found things to eat, I found beds to lay my head on at night, and I made it to Oviedo. But it was not an easy Camino, it was not without struggles. The thought of pulling together a short guide for this route came to me as I was walking my final day. I would have loved some tips on how to get into the albergues when I arrived to find them locked, I would have loved some general advice about the trail, I would have loved to know what the waymarking was really like.
So this is that post, a collection of general thoughts and specific advice and information about the Camino de San Salvador. I’m including several links which will be immeasurably helpful for anyone undertaking this particular journey, and I will be more than happy to try to answer any of your questions, if you think of something that is not included here.
If you’d like to read about my journey before looking through this post, here are those entries:
Why Does This Route Matter?
Here’s a quick history lesson (and it makes me wish that I had been more fully aware of the history of this route while I was walking it!): The 120km Camino de San Salvador connects two major cities in the north of Spain- Leon and Oviedo. Back in the 7th century, King Alfonso II made a pilgrimage to Santiago, beginning in Oviedo. At the time, Oviedo was the capital of Spain, and King Alfonso had a holy chamber built in Oviedo’s cathedral to guard all the relics that had been moved there, to be kept safe from the invading Moors. When political power shifted and the new capital moved to Leon, the main pilgrimage trail also shifted: away from the Norte and Primitivo routes, and to the Frances (which remains the most popular to this day). But the relics stayed in the cathedral in Oviedo, and because pilgrims were encouraged to pay devotion here, it became necessary to develop a route between the cities of Leon and Oviedo. Enter, the Camino de San Salvador.
I may have been hazy on the details while I walked the San Salvador, but I knew enough to visit the cathedral in Oviedo when my trek was finally complete. Pilgrims receive a discount on the audio tour and, I believe, don’t have to pay anything if they only want to visit the statue of San Salvador. (My memory about that could be incorrect; in any case, it’s worth it to pay a few euros and see the cathedral). Make sure to stop at the statue! You can pick up a Salvadorana (like a compostela), a document that certifies your completion of the route, in the gift shop of the cathedral as well as in the Oviedo albergue.
Why Should I Walk This Route?
I wouldn’t recommend the San Salvador as your first Camino, unless you are an experienced trekker/hiker and prefer solitude while you hike. Otherwise, I’d encourage you to begin with the Frances, or even the Norte or the Primitivo. I’ve heard that the Camino Portugues is another good option. There were many times on the San Salvador when I forgot that I was on a Camino; instead, it felt like a good, hard trek through beautiful mountain country in the north of Spain. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re interested in the social aspect of a Camino, then this route may be a little too ‘off the beaten path’ for you.
But, there are so many reasons to tackle this Camino. I think it’s the perfect second or even third Camino, especially if you’ve already done the Frances and/or the Norte. The San Salvador is about a 4 or 5 or 6 day trek, and then it easily links up with the Primitivo, which begins in Oviedo. The Primitivo averages about 11 days, giving you a solid 2+ week Camino into Santiago.
The route is beautiful. It is well-waymarked. There are just enough albergues and towns with accommodation to allow you to plan a route to your fitness level/liking. You get to hit both Leon AND Oviedo. The locals, when you encounter them, are friendly and curious. And you earn a little Camino cred when you can tick this route off of your list. “The San Salvador?” people who’ve heard mention of it will say. “Isn’t that the most difficult, most beautiful route of them all?”
So How Hard Is It, Really?
It’s no walk in the park. My experience may not be the best measuring stick; I’m a strong and fit walker who once did a 50+ km day, but for almost my entire San Salvador trek I was feeling under the weather (and was very sick on my last day of walking). So overall, I found the route to be rather difficult, but I wasn’t at my best. And, surprisingly, I didn’t think the most difficult section was as difficult as I’d feared. It wasn’t easy, but just take it slow and you’ll be fine. You’re going to climb, but is it any more difficult than the trek through the Pyrenees on the first day of the Frances? Or more difficult than the Hospitales route on the Primitivo? Or the first several days of the Norte? A lot depends on how you split up your days, and I (wisely) chose to keep one of the most difficult stretches to a short, 14km day. I think that helped a lot.
The route can sort of be described by three sections: the first is in the province of Leon, and for about 40km follows the east bank of the Rio Benesga. This walking is fairly flat, there is some minor road walking but it’s mostly on dirt paths. The second section crosses the Cordillera mountain range (part of the Picos de Europa) to Pajares, a village in Asturias, and there are some hefty ascents and descents here. Guides claim that the last section of the trail is relatively flat (though all I can remember from my last day of walking was a very long, never-ending uphill stretch and I thought I would never make it to the top. So in this case, ‘mostly flat’ must have meant ‘no mountains to cross’. Basically, expect some hills in this last section).
How Long Does it Take to Walk the San Salvador?
There are many ways to break up this route, and I’ll list a few of them for you based on my own experience and what I’ve found in other guides. I intended to walk the route in 4 days: I consider myself an experienced pilgrim and before coming to Spain I had been doing some light hiking in the mountains in France, so I thought I might be able to tackle some long days. But after my first day of walking I decided that I needed to slow down and tack on a extra day to the walk, splitting the 120km into 5 stages. This worked for me; some will use 7 or 8 days to complete the trek, and I met a woman who did the San Salvador in 3 days (HOW????). So think about your comfort level and experience and how much time you have, and plan accordingly. (Note: the distances are approximate; sometimes my phone showed me very different totals, but these are what the guides I found report).
My route (5 days):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27 km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km
Day 1: Leon – Buiza, 40km
Day 2: Buiza – Pajares, 28km
Day 3: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 4: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km
5 days (another option):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Campomanes, 28kmDay 4: Campomanes – Mieres, 27km
Day 5: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 6: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16km
Day 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 4: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 5: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 6: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 7: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16kmDay 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Buiza, 15km
Day 4: Buiza – Poladura, 10km
Day 5: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 6: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 7: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 8: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
I’ve Heard the Route is Very Isolated; Am I Going to Get Lost?
I was a little worried about this after walking my first day on the San Salvador. That first day was well-marked, but I knew that soon I’d be heading into the mountains, and the guide I had warned of several confusing sections ahead. In the albergue on that first night I found another guide on the bookshelf, this one was a thick booklet, compiled by a man named Ender, filled with pages of photos and descriptions in Spanish (here’s the link, this one has been translated to English, and I’ll reference it again later on). I snapped a photo of every single page and kept these stored on my phone in case I’d need to use them. This guide, as well, showed several areas in great detail, as if to warn pilgrims of the possibility of losing the path. So I was worried when I headed off into the mountains, but I hadn’t needed to be: the waymarking on the entire route was exceptional. Sometime in the years between when I walked (2016) and when my guide was published (2010), someone came through and carefully put markings all along the path, especially in the confusing sections.
Now, I want to add that I was very careful to read through my guide and study the photos from Ender’s guide before I set off each morning, and typically checked them again on my breaks. I wanted to have a visual of the areas I’d be walking through, and to read up on anything about the trail in case it would be helpful. Maybe I didn’t need to be this careful because I remember lots and lots of arrows along the route, but I still think my preparation helped. I was alone, so this extra vigilance gave me some confidence as I walked through the isolated mountain paths.
The Camino markings changed with each section of the route; the first 50km are marked with brown posts, the middle section with yellow metal scallop shells (welded and painted by Ender, author of that wonderful guide!), and the last 50km have the concrete posts with the blue and yellow shell (like those you’d find in Galicia). All along the way are yellow arrows, as well.
You’ve Mentioned Wandering Alone Through the Mountains. Am I Going to Meet Any Other Pilgrims?
Maybe. On the route, possibly not, but almost certainly a few in the albergues (unless, perhaps, you walk in the winter but I wouldn’t recommend it because of bad weather on the mountain passes. Be careful in the spring, as well). You will most likely meet at least a few other pilgrims, but they won’t be many. All of the Camino routes are becoming more popular (and I’m writing this guide with hopes to encourage others to try this route, so I suppose I’m adding to this trend), but I suspect that the San Salvador is never going to become overwhelmingly crowded. It’s a little too unknown, and to those who’ve heard of it, it has a reputation of being difficult.
That being said, more are walking than a few years ago, and I suppose that some days can feel ‘crowded’. Rumor had it that a week prior to when I walked, there were 18 people (!) staying in the albergue in La Robla (where I spent my first night). On my trip, I was the only one in that albergue until 7:30pm, and then was joined by a few bikers and one other walker. On my second night I was all alone in the albergue, the third night I’d needed to take a room in a pension because the albergue was closed (bed bugs, I suspect), though 4 pilgrims were also staying in that pension. Then, on the last night before Oviedo, there were 5 other pilgrims in the albergue with me. But this was in July! And in all of my walking, I only passed that group of 4 pilgrims once on the 4th day of walking. Otherwise, I never saw another pilgrim actually on the path of the Camino. For someone like me, who loves solo-walking, this was incredible, and I felt like I had the mountains all to myself. But an isolated route like this one might not be to everyone’s taste (or, if you’re worried about being alone, bring a friend!).
What Other Tips Do You Have For Me?
#1: This is the biggest one: have a working cell phone with you. There are a few reasons this could come in handy: for one, you’re on a rugged, sometimes difficult trail through the mountains and there are not many people on it with you. If anything goes wrong, it would be good to have a way to get help. I need to follow my own advice because my US cell does not have an international calling plan, and I neglected to set up a SIM card in my phone that would allow me to make local calls. Luckily, I never needed the phone because of injury or danger (and to be honest, this didn’t occur to me as I walked but I promise I’ll be smarter about this in the future), however, I did need a phone for a different reason: the albergues.
Twice on this route, I arrived to an albergue to find it empty, and locked. There was always a sign on the door with a phone number- problem was, I had no way to make the phone call. But in both instances the albergues were in small towns and in the first I was able to have a woman in the tourism office help me, and in the second I was able to find a pay phone. At another point on the route, I’d needed to call ahead to a town to reserve dinner for the night, so I needed to track down another pay phone to make this happen. You could always ask another pilgrim to use their phone- but it’s hard when you’re in an albergue alone and have no one to ask.
Click here to be taken to a link on the Camino forum about how to set up a SIM card on your phone, once in Spain.
#2: My second tip is this: learn a bit of Spanish before you go. I’ve been on a few Camino’s in Spain and have picked up just a tiny bit of Spanish (which means I can sometimes understand a few words of what is being spoken around me, and have learned the basic pilgrim lingo). But on this Camino, I really wished I could have spoken at least conversational Spanish. I got by without it, but I think I met three people in those 5 days who could speak a little English, and it was frustrating to have questions about the route and the albergues and how to find food in the next town and not be able to easily ask them (or understand the answers when I could). Plus, how nice would it be to chat with the locals, rather than only wave and smile?
#3: Take your time walking the middle-ish section through the mountains, which could possibly mean stretching your planned walk from 4 days to 5, or 5 days to 6 (and more specifically, I recommend doing a 14km day from Poladura to Pajares). This section is difficult, so it may take you longer than anticipated anyway, but you will appreciate having extra time to go slow and enjoy the stunning scenery.
Tell Me About a Favorite Moment from Your Camino:
I wrote about this on my blog, but I’ll tell it again, here. On my second day of walking I was about to head into a long, isolated stretch that wouldn’t pass by any towns or villages for a long time. I had a decent amount of food in my pack but I wanted to stock up a bit more, so I set off to find a grocery store. It was early in the morning and neither store I found was opened. Rather than wait around, I decided to head into a bar and buy a pastry; it would be my treat once I got to the top of the mountain. But when I asked for a croissant ‘to-go’, the man behind the counter just looked at me in confusion, then disappeared to the kitchen for about 10 minutes. When he finally emerged, he handed me a beautiful package: a croissant on a plate, wrapped in tissue paper and tied up with brown string. He placed it in my hands and I thanked him over and over but all I could think was- how in the world am I going to fit this into my pack? I couldn’t. So I walked up that mountain with my walking stick in one hand, my croissant in the other. And when I finally made it to the top and found a place to rest on a large, flat rock in the sunshine, I finally opened my package. That croissant was maybe the best thing I’d ever tasted.
Here are some resources to help with your planning:
Link to Ender’s guide, translated into English
San Salvador page on the Camino forum (with tons of helpful threads)
CSJ Guide (this is the more updated version of the one I had)
Piers Nicholson’s Picture Website (300 photos of San Salvador)
There is so much more I could describe and share from the Camino de San Salvador, but this is a good start. If you’re interested in this route, please write a comment or send me a message- I would love to answer any questions you might have.
2017 is already shaping up to be a good year, and it’s only just begun. Somehow, incredibly, I’ve already got my summer plans figured out.
This is unprecedented.
Last year, in particular, I had such a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do, and I became frustrated by my indecision. I have this somewhat unique opportunity to spend two months of my year doing whatever I like, and I was letting myself become stressed over the decision. I felt ridiculous. And yet, I went back and forth a dozen times, wanting to do it all: wanting to return to my favorite places and experiences, and wanting to try something brand new. I wondered if I should travel to some place other than Europe, I wondered if I should stick closer to home.
This time around? A few weeks ago I decided to see what flight prices to Paris might be like for June/July. And what I discovered nearly took my breath away: the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen on round-trip, direct flights from Philly to Paris in the summertime. (Well, that’s not entirely true, I got an even cheaper flight back in 2003 but that was a long time ago).
So I did something a bit out of character- I ran into my bedroom, grabbed my wallet from my purse, and before I knew it I had purchased the flight.
Then, I shot off an email to the owners of La Muse (the writer’s and artist’s retreat I visited last summer), and asked about availability. There’s been talk of a few of us from last year reuniting again in July, plus there was an attractive holiday discount being dangled around. The next day I got an email back- “We’d love to have you return!!” and before I knew it, I had myself booked in a room for three weeks.
And then, after a week of browsing through Airbnb apartments in Paris (which was way more fun than I ever expected!), I found a tiny little space on the 7th floor of an old building in St Germain, that has a balcony with views to the Eiffel Tower.
This year, there was very little of the indecision that I’ve had in the past. There are still so many things I want to do and so many places I want to travel to, but for whatever reason, this year’s choice felt easy. I’m going back to France, and I’m going to spend the entire summer there.
I love France, you already know that. Each of my trips to Europe these past four summers have included some time in France (and a mandatory jaunt through Paris, even if only for a day, like this past year). I can speak French- not well, but I improve the more I have the chance to speak. I studied abroad in Toulouse back in 2000-2001, and at the end of that year I said to myself: “This could be a problem. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I have a feeling that instead of going to new places, I’m always going to want to come back to France.”
And it could almost drive me mad, the thought that I was existing in the world and Paris was existing too but that I was not there.
Some people, when they travel, will always want to go somewhere new, and I can understand that. “Why return to the same place when you’ve already been there? There are so many places in the world to explore!” they say. I think I will continue to travel to new places throughout my life, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I love, I don’t often get tired of it. I can go back- again and again- to the same things and places and learn to love them more fully. And I experience so much happiness when I return to a place that I love.
And so, I’m going back to France.
The trip is going to have three parts- La Muse and Paris, but what would a summer trip be without some walking? You knew this was coming. But instead of squeezing in a trip to Spain, I’m going to stay settled in France, and try a couple weeks on one of the Camino trails through this country. My plan, for now, is to walk the Le Puy route, which cuts a sloping line, east to west, sort of through the southern half of France. I’ll begin at the start- in Le Puy-en-Velay- and walk as far as I can in two weeks. I’ve heard that this is the most beautiful and popular Camino route in France, and that some parts may be challenging but I suspect that it’s nothing I can’t handle.
A walk in France isn’t a walk in Spain; there will be some big differences. France is more expensive, I’ll need to make reservations each night, there won’t be nearly as many people on the trails (though I sure had a large dose of isolation on the San Salvador!), and most of the people walking will be French.
The walking will kick off my trip, then I’ll take a train to La Muse and continue work on my writing and my memoir. The summer journey ends with a week in Paris, and this feels just right. It’s my favorite city in the world, and I certainly have more exploring that I need to do there. But settling into an apartment in the heart of a city that I’m already familiar with gives me the chance to just… be. To drink coffee on the little balcony and stare at the magical views. To make my way to a different café every day and scribble away in a notebook. To keep writing in a city where so many greats have gone to write. To wander, to roam.
It’s going to be a very French summer, and I have to tell you, I’m so excited for it. 2017 already feels like it’s going to be a big, incredible year, and having this trip half-planned sure helps. So as they say in France: Bonne Année! Let’s all make it a good one.
I always get reflective at this time of the year. For years I would journal on the very last day of the calendar year, looking back and reminding myself of all that I’d done (or hadn’t done), what went well in the year, what hadn’t. And then I’d set my sights forward, making lists of goals and resolutions and plans. A new year has always had a touch of magic to it: I still love the idea that I’m starting from a blank slate, that I hold the pen that writes in the story of my next 12 months.
But before we can get to the future, lets look back at the past! I’ve never written a ‘best of’ post, have I? In any case, I’ve been thinking about all that I’ve done this year, and I thought it could be fun to do a round-up here on this blog, going month to month. There were some things that went wrong, maybe some months where it felt like I didn’t do too much, but I’m going to keep this post happy and positive. These are my memorable moments from the year, along with some of my favorite photos. (And, in case you don’t make it to the end of this post: a great big thank you to all of you. I’m still astounded that there is anyone at all who reads this blog, much less people who have been coming back for years now. My blogging slowed down this year, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. If anything, I want to make blogging a more regular part of my routine for 2017, so I hope you’ll stick around).
I kicked off the year in Washington DC, a place I visited multiple times in 2016. I have several very good friends who live in or around the city and so I find myself there a lot: for art museums, baseball games, concerts. And I ended the month in Fort Royal, Virginia, where I met up with a friend for a winter weekend of wine tasting. But aside from these trips, the month was cold, and quiet. I made a few trips into Philly to hunt down the city’s best coffee shops, but otherwise I was tucked into my apartment and doing the tough, but gratifying work of writing my memoir.
Another cold, winter month and the few photos I took reveal simple activities: I wrote, I hit more coffee shops, I baked bread, I went on a few long walks when the sun came out.
More walks! More coffee! Art museums in Philly are pay what you wish on the first Sunday of the month, and at least once I year I get into the city to see my favorite works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This year I waited in a long line to get free tickets into the Barnes Foundation, a museum that holds an extensive collection of post-impressionist and early modern paintings. It’s an outstanding collection, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter Sunday than in the gallery of an art museum.
This month also held my first big trip of the year: a four-day camping excursion on Cumberland Island in the state of Georgia. It was an adventure, to be sure: I’d never been camping on my own before, and never for more than one night. I bought myself a new sleeping bag, a little camp stove, and loaded up my car and drove 12 hours down to Georgia. I took a ferry out to the island and crossed my fingers that this camping thing would work out. And it did. The weather was stunning, I explored all over the island, saw wild horses and armadillos and the ruins of old mansions.
The weather began to get nicer this month, so I took advantage and was outside as much as possible. I went on a far-too-long walk along the Delaware & Raritan Canal (I think it was about 18 miles? My feet were throbbing at the end and I had a small blister forming on the ball of my foot but it was a good to get back outside), spent a weekend in Frederick, MD with good friends, spent time with my family and kept chipping away at my writing.
I usually love the month of May but this year it seemed like it rained constantly. Did the sun come out at all? My pictures show beautiful days only at the end of the month, when I drove out to Cleveland over Memorial Day weekend to visit my sister. When it wasn’t raining I spent as much time as I could at my local park, hiking on the trails and getting ready for my summer adventures.
The end of work, baseball games, beach trips, hiking, a bridal shower for a good friend. And at the very end of the month, I set off for my 7-week summer in Europe, which I kicked off in Bath, England. I spent a day wandering through the city, finding my travel legs, and hanging out with Jane Austen.
It’s hard to pick the highlights from the month of July: on the 1st of the month I was at Stonehenge, on the 31st of the month I was dragging myself into Oviedo to finish the Camino de San Salvador. In between I had three mostly glorious weeks at La Muse, the writer’s and artist’s retreat in the south of France. If I had to pick a favorite moment from the month it would probably be sitting up at Le Roc with Homer, looking out over the mountains surrounding Labastide.
Lots more walking to do this month! I started things off with 9 days on the Camino del Norte, then spent a week in Scotland, hiking the West Highland Way. Both trips were incredible, but by the end I felt ready to come home and spend the last month of summer with family and friends.
I checked an item off my bucket list this month: I officiated the wedding of two good friends! Afterwards I joked that I might make this officiating-weddings-thing a side-gig (anyone need someone to marry them?), but all joking aside, it was an incredible experience. The rest of the month was about transitioning back into work and enjoying the fading days of summer with long hikes and a couple trips to DC.
My mom and I took a little trip up to Concord, Massachusetts to see Walden Pond and (most importantly) Orchard House, which is the long-time home of Louisa May Alcott. I wasn’t supposed to take any photos inside but when no one was looking I snapped a photo of the desk where Alcott wrote Little Women. It’s my favorite book of all time, and after the trip I felt re-energized and excited about getting back into my own writing.
November had a couple weekend trips: one down to Maryland and Virginia and West Virginia- with a quick hike in Shenandoah National Park and a visit to Harper’s Ferry, and a day trip up to NYC to reunite with a couple friends from my summer at La Muse. There was election day madness and a relaxing trip home for Thanksgiving, and lots of walks and hiking as I took advantage of some mild fall weather.
This has been a quiet month. I’ve seen friends, baked lots of cookies, and spent the holidays with my family. Since my summer travels I’ve really struggled to get back into my writing, but I think I’ve set myself up with a good plan for the next few months. I’m ready to get into a new year, and I’m ready to see what I can accomplish in 2017. 2016 was, overall, a fine year, but now it’s time for something even bigger and greater.
Happy New Year, my friends, and I will see you all soon!
August 17th was my last day of walking on the West Highland Way, which was exactly 4 months ago. 4 months! This is absolutely the most delayed post I’ve ever written.
I was just looking through my photos from those last days in Scotland, and in some ways I feel like I was just there, but in other ways… it feels like those memories are from another life. This tends to happen, especially in these cold, winter months (I’m currently sitting on my couch under a heavy comforter listening to the ping of freezing rain against my window). In the Scotland photos I’m tan, my hair is lighter, the world is green and the sun is shining brightly. Everything is warm and light and free and fun- very much the opposite of the time of life I’m in now.
There are moments of fun in these months- indeed- so maybe it’s just this transition to winter that always gets me a bit down. These are short, dark days- we are in the very shortest days of the year right now, and I can feel it. The cold has blown in too, and I can feel myself resisting all of this. I still want to be outside in a t-shirt, hiking loops on the trails in my park, driving with my windows down, making smoothies and planning camping trips.
I’ve resisted settling into these dark, cold winter days, because this time of the year, for me, is synonymous with work and discipline and routine. The end of my summer travels was so much fun, and I found that for months afterwards I wanted to hold onto that feeling. I still want to hold on to that feeling, but just as equally, I want to begin again with my writing.
So here’s what happening, over here: I’m missing summertime. I’m dreaming of travel plans for 2017. But more than either of those, I’m finally beginning to accept that winter is here. And that it’s time to write- to really write again.
And what better place to begin than at the end? My last day on the West Highland Way was, by all accounts, the ‘easy’ one. It was the shortest distance of the trip, clocking in at only 24 kilometers (which, following days of 30, 32, 31, 35km, felt like a breeze).
But maybe I was a bit too confident heading into the day: I felt so relaxed that I didn’t prepare as I normally would, by meticulously examining my guidebook and planning stops and lunch breaks. So, an hour into my walk, when I stopped for a moment and paged through the guidebook to see where I was, I realized that I wouldn’t be passing through any villages, the path wouldn’t take me by an Inn, there would be absolutely no places to buy food.
Whoops. I’d eaten another hearty breakfast that morning- a huge bowl of porridge, two slices of toast, a container of yogurt and a lot of coffee- so I didn’t need to worry about my food situation right away. I was totally stocked up on water and I had some leftover snacks tucked away in my pack so I just kept walking, because, well, it was the only thing I could do.
It was another stunning day: bright sunlight and a clear blue sky. The walk started with a steady climb out of Kinlochleven, but soon the path leveled out and the walking was mostly even, with only short ascents and descents for the rest of the way.
I walked steadily for hours, stopping a few times for short breaks, or to examine old stone ruins, or to take off my socks and air out my feet. After about 20km (and a mere 4km from the end of the day), I was too hungry to continue so I hopped up on a large rock and dug through my bag, searching for any bit of food that I could find. I had one apple, three Oreo cookies, a small and rather stale packaged croissant, and half a bag of dried cherries that I’d bought in Santiago. I ate it all, and then continued walking.
Even though the walking that day wasn’t too difficult, I felt ready to be done. I walked swiftly through the last kilometers, ready to find my hostel, ready to take a shower, ready to sit down for a large meal. 100 miles (many of them difficult) in 5 days wasn’t easy. I don’t wish that I’d done it any other way: I loved the challenge, I loved those really long days of walking, I loved how strong I felt.
But I was also tired. And I was at the very end of my trip- not just the Scotland part, but the whole thing: Bath, London, Paris, Labastide, Madrid, Leon, the San Salvador, the Norte, Santiago, Glasgow, the West Highland Way. It was almost time to go home, and I was ready for the comforts of my apartment, the ease of daily life, the familiar faces of my family and friends.
My hostel wasn’t technically at the very end of the West Highland Way- it was in Glen Nevis, a small hamlet in open countryside, about a 45-minute walk from Fort William. The official end of the West Highland Way used to be in Glen Nevis- just off the side of the road by a round-about (and there is still a sign to mark this), but in recent years the “end” was moved into Fort William, so walkers would have to pass directly through the bustling commerce and tourist shops of the main street in town.
In any case, when I arrived at my hostel, I felt as though I had arrived at the end. The next day I would walk into Fort William but for now I was happy to find my bunk, wash my clothes, and eat a good meal. I was happy that I’d decided to stay in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel- it sits directly across from the entrance to the path that leads up Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The hostel building was old and quirky but the rooms were clean, the bunks seemed new, and I found a private bathroom down one of the hallways that had a lock on the door and a pristine shower.
This was the first time that I had to share sleeping quarters with other people on the West Highland Way, but I found the people staying in the hostel to be an interesting mix. After eating dinner at restaurant down the road, I came back to the hostel and settled into the lounge area, to try to do some writing. I only got a few sentences in when Tony, a wiry Londoner in his 50’s, began talking to me. He was in Glen Nevis with a few of his buddies- his friends were taking on the challenge of climbing three mountains in 24-hours and Tony explained that they were currently climbing to the top of Ben Nevis. “I’m their driver,” he explained. “See this radio here? They’ll signal me when they get to the top, and then I’ve got to be ready with the car as soon as they descend. Then we drive off to the next one.”
While he waited, he made me a cup of tea, saying that I had to have it prepared in the proper, British way (with cream and lots of sugar). Sitting with us in the lounge was a Norwegian man who was trying to convince me to climb Ben Nevis the next day (a lot of people staying at the hostel were there to climb the mountain), and an American woman who was tired of driving on the “crazy Scottish roads”.
This felt like the most I’d spoken to anyone in days, and it was nice to be surrounded by friendly people. But, strangely, I was the only one there who had walked the West Highland Way. This cinched it- most people on the West Highland Way were campers. If I were to do it again (and be guaranteed to have stunning weather), I would love to try camping. But as it is, having a roof over my head and a mattress to sleep on is still a very nice luxury at the end of the day.
My original plan had been to walk the West Highland Way in six days. I’d needed to change that because of availability of places to stay along the way, so I cut the walk down to 5 days. This left me an extra day in Glen Nevis/Fort William, and before beginning the walk I thought that I might like to climb Ben Nevis. But sitting in my hostel that night, sipping my sweet tea and listening to tales from the other travelers, I knew that I was done. My body was tired. I could summit that mountain another time- and besides, I hadn’t come to Scotland to climb a mountain. I’d come to walk the West Highland Way, and I’d done a good job of it.
Tony’s radio buzzed and he leaped into action. Before running out the door he raced over and gave me a big hug. The Norwegian man asked if he could have my walking stick. An American girl from Arizona asked what the West Highland Way had been like. I smiled at her. “It was an adventure,” I said.
For the past week I’ve been thinking- every day- about what to post here on my blog. I write mostly about walking and traveling and sometimes about coffee, and I will certainly keep writing about those things.
But it just didn’t feel right to come back here and write my next post about Scotland and pretend like the election never happened. I don’t write about politics here, but I do write about my personal experiences: I tell my stories. And what’s going on in the US and my reactions to it are very much a part of the story of my life.
When Donald Trump was elected to be the next President of the United States, I was horrified. I didn’t believe it could actually happen, but that also doesn’t mean that I wasn’t worried and anxious all through the election cycle.
Because sometimes I saw how it could happen. I live in a liberal area (a county outside of Philadelphia, PA), have liberal neighbors, a mostly liberal family and mostly liberal friends. But when I opened my ears, even in my very liberal area, I heard people speak of their support for Trump. And when I would drive just 30 minutes north, or west, I would start to see the signs. Navy blue with white block letters that spelled out: Trump. Pence. Make America Great Again. A week and a half ago I drove out to my parents’ house in Lancaster- a mostly conservative county- and I took back roads and I saw nothing but Trump signs.
It was always all around me- all around all of us, I suppose- but it was always easier to push the fears away and say, “There’s no way our country will elect him to be our President.” It was what I said when I traveled this summer: every other person who saw my American passport had a question or a statement to make about Trump, and my response was to groan and shake my head, but then to say, “But he’ll never be our President.”
It was easier to believe this. Maybe I had to believe this, because what was the alternative? It was something very, very difficult for me to imagine.
As a white, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied woman living in the United States, I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s been pretty easy for me to move through life and take advantage of the opportunities given to me, without having to encounter much- or any- resistance, or intolerance, or violence, or hate, or prejudice. For that, I am very, very lucky.
But I am a woman, and sometimes, I get very angry at the way I’m treated. And it’s been like that for a long time. I can remember this one night when I was in high school- it was late spring or maybe early fall and I was standing with a few other girlfriends on the sidewalk that was at the edge of a small college campus. A car full of guys drove by; the windows were open and they leaned their heads out the window and shouted at us- catcalled at us.
My instant reaction was to take a step into the street and shout back at the car that was, by now, far down the street. So I yelled, moved back onto the sidewalk, and my friends were staring at me with their mouths opened. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something like this: “Nadine, it’s not that big of a deal. Calm down.”
My freshman year of college I was working a lunch shift in the dining hall- wearing a worn red apron and a paper hat that stuck like glue to the sweat on my forehead- and a barrel-chested guy in a white t-shirt approached me. I thought he wanted a salad plate, but instead he bent down close to my ear and whispered something very, very crude. It was supposed to be a pick-up line, I suppose, but to shrug it off as an “innocent” pick-up line from a young and cocky college student would be to overlook what it really was. Sort of like dismissing something as “locker-room talk”. I stared at him, hard, but I was unable to say anything. So I turned on my heel and walked away and never forgot what he looked like.
A few years later we became friends, but in the days when we were still getting to know each other, he said something to me that took me by surprise. “You hate men, don’t you?” he’d said.
It couldn’t have been further from the truth. But I used that moment to remind him of what he had said to me in the dining hall. “I don’t hate men,” I said. “But I do hate the way that some men can sometimes treat women. With that one line, you made me feel unsafe, and embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry, and small.”
Had he heard me? Had he really heard me? To him, it was only ever a pick-up line.
When I was a sophomore in college I took a writing class called “Sex, Gender and Identity”. I was the youngest student in the class; there was always a long waiting list because students were always fixated on the ‘sex’ part of the course description, and not necessarily because they took the subject very seriously. But I did. The professor of the course would sometimes photocopy the papers I wrote and hand them out to the rest of the class as an example of what an ‘A+’ paper looked like. I’ve held onto these papers and when I read them now, I cringe at how bad the writing is. But there’s something else I notice in my words, something the professor had undoubtedly noticed, too: a passion. A burning fire. I cared deeply about the topics I was writing about.
In those days I spoke up. But in the intervening years, something has happened to that voice, and I realize that it’s become quiet. There are a lot of reasons for that, and some of them are complicated, but here’s one: I shied away from anger. I still do. Long ago I made a very conscious choice to be positive, to be kind, to be open and accepting and to spread happiness where I could. It’s so ingrained to how I live my life that I can see how I step away from negativity. I see a person who talks down to others, who is intolerant, who is racist, who is misogynistic; I stay away, and choose to keep them out of my life.
That’s how I’ve reacted in this election, too. It’s been hard for me to stomach. I tried to watch the debates but I had to turn them off because of the way Trump spoke to Hillary. I couldn’t stand it, so I shut it off. I turned away. I told myself that our country wouldn’t chose a leader who makes racist remarks, whose comments about sexually assaulting women he brushes off as “locker room talk”, who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, who threatens to turn back the legalization of same-sex marriage.
And when Trump was elected as our President, my very first response was to think, “Now would be a mighty fine time to move to Europe.” (Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d sometimes dreamed about moving to Europe well before this election cycle…)
But to move, to turn away, to flee, to take myself out of the country of my citizenship… it’s not the answer for me. I’m am American, and for better or for worse, I’m proud to be an American. We are powerfully divided, but this is my country. And these last few weeks have shown me and reminded me of what I so strongly believe in: Liberty and justice for all. That all men are created equal. To love your neighbor- all of your neighbors- as thyself.
I remember the young woman who stood up to sexism, I remember the 7th grade kid who stood in front of a classroom of her peers and recited Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech (now thinking this could be the reason I didn’t get invited to many parties…). I’ve never stopped believing in freedom and equality; I’ve never stopped working hard to provide a safe and welcoming space for every teenager that I work with, but the fire that I’d felt when I was younger? I feel it again. It should have never gone away, but maybe the important thing now is that it’s back.
And it’s back for a lot of us. I see it on Facebook and Instagram, I hear it from my friends and from my colleagues at work. For me, this is about love and acceptance- messages that are needed now more than ever as we’re seeing a trickle-down from the campaign and election of racism and sexism and bigotry. There are dozens of things that we can all be doing, and I won’t list them out here but I’ve read some excellent posts and articles and here are a couple links: Twenty Things You Can Do When The World Is Terrifying, Leaving is Easy/ Fighting is Harder.
The other thing I’m going to do- and have never stopped doing- is to get outside and take a walk. You all should. Breathe in some fresh air, notice the sky and the grass and the trees, clear your head. I’m also going to keep baking bread, and keep petting dogs, and keep smiling at strangers.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful poem that was shared by a friend of mine the other day: The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
My fourth day on the West Highland Way had me walking out of the tiny hamlet of Bridge of Orchy with nearly all my clothing hanging in rather wet clumps from the back of my pack. Two pairs of underwear, a sports bra, two pairs of socks, two tshirts, and a towel. In fact, I’m sure I hadn’t managed to strap all of this to the outside of my pack so some of it was rolled up into a plastic bag inside my pack, something I’ve never had to do before.
I was wearing dirty hiking shorts but this was fine, because my shorts were often dirty. But both of my hiking shirts were wet so I had to wear the only other shirt I had- a black tank top that I’d been using to sleep in.
I knew I was going to run into this trouble two days before, when I’d walked all day and didn’t feel like washing my clothes at 8:30pm. And the day before, despite getting to my train station hostel around 5, I still didn’t have enough time to sufficiently dry my clothing. The evening was cool, my room at the station was chilly, and my clothing was still almost dripping wet in the morning when I set off.
This has not been an uncommon experience for me on these long walks, but usually I only need to pin a pair of socks from the back of my pack, maybe a pair of underwear. At first I felt strange doing it, but I quickly got used to it. After a few hours of walking in the sunshine, the clothes dry nicely.
And this fourth day was no exception- after a few hours of hiking the sun was brightly shining and my clothes were drying and I was feeling good.
I was feeling really good. It was another beautiful day on the West Highland Way- a long, challenging day, where I would walk over 20 miles, some of them very difficult miles (the miles at the end, of course). At first I was daunted by the elevation profiles in my guidebook, but after an initial sharp ascent and descent out of Bridge of Orchy, the next 8 miles were a very gradual ascent. It was the kind of climbing that I barely noticed, and by this point in the summer, my legs were strong.
I may not have noticed the climbing, but I did notice what was surrounding me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the landscape, and every five minutes I realized that I was turning in a full circle, and sometimes even walking backwards for a few steps because the landscape- every bit of it- was stunning.
I’m going to post a bunch of photos but it was really difficult for my camera to capture what I was seeing with my eyes. I couldn’t capture it, and maybe that’s a good thing, because my memory of that morning’s walk is one of my favorites from the entire summer.
I was walking through open moorland, in the wildest and most remote section of the West Highland Way. Every once in awhile I would pass another hiker or two, but mostly I was totally alone. These miles are desolate and isolated- there are no roads, no buildings, no shelter, no way out. If the weather is bad this could be a very difficult section of the walk, but since I had clear skies and sunshine, the walk was just… incredible. Land and sky, land and sky, stretching out as far as I could see.
From what I can remember, there are no fun stories from this day, no unique interactions, no good anecdotes. Just beautiful walking. I stopped for lunch at a climber’s bar in the back of an Inn- the only place to stop for miles and miles- and then I kept walking.
The last part of the day’s hike included the dreaded Devil’s Staircase. My guidebook promised that it wasn’t as bad as the name would suggest, and locals I’d encountered in the past few days said the same thing.
And certainly, from where I stood at the bottom, the “staircase” (or long and winding path) didn’t look impossible. But then I started climbing. And my legs burned. And I was tired. I had been walking great distances day after day and a difficult climb to cap off what would be 35 kilometers was simply not appreciated. But I remembered what the woman in the bar the night before had told me- “It’s only walking”, and so I just put one foot in front of the other and kept going.
At the top was a large pile of rocks and lots of day-hikers posing for photos and selfies. I paused for a moment but after spending the entire day pretty much alone, this little summit felt crowded.
So I kept walking, and walking, and walking. I thought Kinlochleven would never arrive, the descent was longer and harder than I thought and I got a bit confused when I finally arrived in town and was unable to find my campsite. But eventually I did find it after asking for directions, and I was once again directed to a cabin which I had all to myself. And it was beautiful- a line of small wooden cabins and a lawn filled with tents, all set against a backdrop of rugged green mountains.
Dinner was in the pub next to the Inn, and I feasted on a large bowl of cullen skink (which is basically a delicious Scottish fish chowder), a hunk of bread, and a big glass of red wine. Hearty and warm and satisfying.
My cabin had a toasty little heater and a door that wouldn’t stay latched, and it banged open and shut throughout the night but I barely noticed. I slept soundly and comfortably. Day 4 was in the books, and now only one more day of walking remained.
There is pumpkin bread in the oven, outside it’s pouring rain. Red, wet leaves are everywhere now, they’re blanketing the ground and coating my kitchen window. It’s autumn, maybe the most autumn-est day of the entire season so far. Horror movies run in marathons on TV, tomorrow night is Game 3 of the World Series. The end of October is a great time of year.
And speaking of time, I think it’s about time that I wrote more about Scotland. I can’t believe I’m still writing about this trek- or, more precisely, that it is taking me so long to write about these days. I’m not sure why, but it seems as though the further we move away from the summer, the more difficult it is to remember my long days of walking on the West Highland Way.
I’ve been afraid that I would just stop writing about it altogether, and never finish telling you about my adventure, but that doesn’t feel right. So I’m back at it, and maybe if I’m lucky I can finish telling you about Scotland before we ring in a new year.
We’re on Day 3. And it was a magnificent day. 31 kilometers and I think the walking wasn’t too difficult (See? I can’t remember! Was I tired? Exhausted from the days before? Did the small hills feel like mountains? Or was I gliding along?). All I really remember is that this is the day when I finally felt like I was in the Highlands, or at least the Highlands of my imagination. I’d finally moved away from that lake of epic proportions and was now among rolling hills and green earth. There were cows and sheep, a sky that looked like a painting, crumbling stone walls and an old cemetery.
Aside from the stunning scenery, the highlight of this day might have been my lunch stop. I walked off the trail and went just a bit out of my way to find a little family-run coffee shop that was housed in an old church. One end of the room had a small gift shop full of handmade crafts and the other side had wooden dining tables with tiny vases of fresh flowers. I sat at a corner table and ordered a cafe mocha, a grilled cheese sandwich and a small salad. The service was slow but I didn’t mind; I had nowhere to be and all day to walk and this little café/church was the perfect place for a good, long break.
When I finished I went up to the cash register to pay, and noticed a counter filled with trays of pastries. A hand-written sign said that the pastries were all fresh and homemade, so I picked out a thick slice of lemon drizzle cake, that I asked to have wrapped up.
“That’ll be the perfect snack when you need to get out of your car and stretch your legs,” the woman behind the counter said, handing me my cake.
“Oh I’m not driving,” I replied. “I’m walking the West Highland Way.”
The woman gave me a long look and tilted her head to the side. “Really? You’re looking awfully casual to be on that walk.”
I looked down at myself. What could she have meant? I was wearing my hiking shoes and long green hiking pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. I was dressed like a hiker, at least I thought I was. Maybe West Highland Way hikers didn’t often find their way to this café? Maybe when they did, they looked different?
The woman chatted with me for a few minutes and then I was on my way again, back out into the sunshine and the warm air, up into the hills and past fields of cows. I was energized by my espresso drink, full from my meal, satisfied to have all day to walk in a beautiful place.
I rolled into Bridge of Orchy, my destination, sometime in the late afternoon. Bridge of Orchy is described in my guidebook as a tranquil hamlet nestled in the foothills of two mountains. The village is nothing more than a train station, a hotel, a few houses and I walked all the way through and was headed straight out of town when I realized that I must have passed my lodgings for the night.
I’d reserved a bed in a bunkhouse at the train station. I knew I’d be sleeping at the train station, and yet, when I crossed under the tracks, I walked right by because I couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the hostel was located. But I made my way back, walking up onto the platform and peering through the windows of the long, narrow building that sat between the tracks. I tried a few doorknobs; they were locked. Then I saw an opened door and went inside, to find a crowded and messy room. There were old couches and newspapers and books scattered about, shelves of packaged food and a basket to collect money.
I called out ‘hello’, thinking someone might be in the back room, but the place was deserted. I went back outside, circled the building once more, and then- because I had already walked through the village and hadn’t seen a soul- I sat down on a bench to wait.
As I sat on the bench at the empty train station, eating my lemon drizzle cake, I had the thought that I was waiting for a train that would never come. But after only 5 minutes I heard voices, and then I had one of the stranger encounters of my trip.
Three old men walked up, they each had a bag dangling from a hand- one had a small canvas bag but the other two had large and tattered plastic bags. There were all wearing t-shirts, old jeans, beat up sneakers.
I looked up at them eagerly as they walked by. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know how to check in here?”
They slowly turned to me as if they hadn’t realized I’d been there all along. One of the men spoke. “We’re walkers,” he said.
“Yeah, me too.”
The men all stared at me for a moment, and then they kept walking down the platform. One of them called back, “But we’re walking the West Highland Way.”
Huh. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but maybe it was best not to. A few minutes later another old man walked up, but this one had a set of keys in his fist and came right up to me and asked if my name was Nadine.
“Strange day,” he said to me as he led me into a room with two sets of (three-tiered!!) bunk beds. “Last night we were packed, but tonight there’s hardly anyone. You’ll be the only one in this room.” The three old men were staying in a room further down the platform (and to be honest I was a little relieved), so I found myself, yet again, with a room of my own.
I ate dinner in the bar of the Inn down the road; it was a beautiful white building and my table had a big leather chair that I sank into and the room was warm and cozy. I ordered a hamburger and fries and a couple glasses of wine (and paid three times as much as I would have in Spain but who’s counting?), and while I was eating a man from California came over to talk. When he found out I was hiking he fired dozens of questions at me, not seeming to understand that I wake up in the morning and just start walking. “You don’t have a bike?” he asked. “You don’t take a train?”
He invited me to join him and his friend for some whiskey but the sun had set, the sky was a dark shade of blue and I had a 10-minute walk back up to an empty room in a deserted train station. I politely declined his offer and he walked away, and then a local woman at a table across the room began talking to me. Under the table and at her feet was a big white dog, and she told me that she overheard some of my conversation and wanted to know how my trek was going. She asked how many days it would take me and when I told her 5, her eyebrows shot up in surprise.
But she quickly recovered. “I walked it with my girlfriends,” she said, “And it took us 7 days. But 5 days is fine, my husband did that.”
I told her that I was worried about tomorrow’s walk- it would be another long day and there were two difficult stretches but her reply was instant. “Don’t worry, you can do it. They call it the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ but it’s really not that bad. And just think, all you’re really doing is walking, right? It’s only walking.”
Yes, it’s only walking. Sometimes it’s uphill, sometimes it goes on for hours and hours and hours, sometimes it’s muddy or rocky or smooth or rough, but at the end of the day, it’s only walking.
So I walked myself back up to the train station under the light of a near-full moon, opened the door to my private room and crawled under the covers of my bottom bunk.
It’s only walking, and I love it.
“This is the loch that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends…”
17 miles into the day’s hike, I found myself repeatedly singing this line as I stepped up and down over large rocks, sloshed through mud, ducked under low-hanging tree branches. Every time the trail bent around a curve or the trees opened up I would look ahead anxiously, hoping to see something other than the gray, dim water of Loch Lomond. Instead, I saw the same views I had been seeing for the past 10 hours.
Before I set off that morning, I was aware that the day’s walk would have me following the shoreline of Loch Lomond for nearly it’s entire length- all 23 miles. I paged through my guidebook as I ate breakfast in the restaurant of The Oak Tree Inn. A giant spread was laid out before me: cereals and muesli, yogurts and toast and juice. Coffee or tea, eggs and grilled sausage and tomatoes and mushrooms and baked beans and haggis. I took a little of nearly everything and ate to my heart’s content, pleased and surprised to discover that I quite liked haggis (it’s a savoury pudding made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, all of it minced and mixed with onions and suet and other spices, packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. This sounds absolutely disgusting and to be honest I didn’t really know exactly what it was when I ate it- I only had a very vague idea so I didn’t think too hard about what I was eating. And I found it to be delicious).
I set out for my walk with a full stomach and an easy feeling about the trail ahead. My guidebook showed the elevation of the day to be mostly flat, and there would be one split in the trail with an option for an easier route that I planned to take. All in all, it looked to be a straightforward and uncomplicated day.
And for the first part of the day, I found this to be true: the path hugged the shoreline of the loch and treated me to gentle, misty views of fog hovering just about the water. Every once in awhile I passed a few people on the trail, many of them walking in the opposite direction. But mostly my walk was quiet and peaceful, the trail a bed of dirt and small rocks that wasn’t too difficult to walk over.
After a few hours I stopped at a bar for a cappuccino, served to me in a large mug with a gingerbread cookie on the side. I took my drink outside to sit at a picnic table at the back of the property, just as the clouds parted long enough to throw some sunlight onto the yard. I sat in a pool of the warm light, sipping my creamy drink, and thinking about how nice of a day this was shaping up to be. A woman and her grandson stopped by my table to chat- they were on holiday and were curious about the walk I was doing.
I smiled to myself as I walked away, prepared to continue walking along the loch. My plan was to stop for lunch at the Inversnaid Hotel, the only restaurant I would pass for the rest of the day’s hike. I figured it would take me another 3 or 4 hours to reach it, but oh how wrong I was.
I’m not sure when I figured out that the path I was on was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Sometime after the coffee stop, the path began to get a bit tricky- I had to pay close attention to my footing given all the rocks and pits of mud that I had to navigate. I passed the point where the trail split, and this was probably my mistake. Instead of taking the higher, easier route that I’d planned to, I stayed on the lower path that continued to hug the shoreline. Here’s what my guidebook had to say about the lower route: “a small path which forges a tortuous route clinging as close to the shore as it dares. Many short, steep climbs, fallen trees and rocky sections make the going slow and arduous”.
So why in the world did I take this path when it wasn’t in my original plans? First of all, the split wasn’t exactly clear. There was a spot where I could continue on the path that I had been on, or follow a different path slightly higher. But at this point the signposts only indicated that the West Highland Way continued on the lower path. I’m still pretty sure that this was the split my guidebook described, and I knew it at the time, too, and yet I stayed on the lower path. I think it’s because after three years of walking the Camino, I’ve been trained to follow the arrows. Always follow the arrows. If there had been a sign indicating that the West Highland Way also followed the higher and easier track, I’m sure I would have taken it. But instead I chose to just keep following those arrows (or, in this case, the thistles), even though I knew that the low path could be quite difficult.
And it was. It wasn’t quite as bad as what the guidebook promises, and I think the most difficult sections were probably helped out by the addition of wooden bridges and stairs. But even with these structures, the walk was tough. My favorite kind of walking is the mindless sort- where I can just cruise along and let my mind wander. But the walking on this second day of the West Highland Way? I had to pay attention to nearly every step I took. Sometimes I had to stop and look hard at the trail and figure out where I should place my feet. My steps were measured and careful and muddy. And despite the “flat” elevation shown to me on maps in my guidebook, I had to step up and down over rocks so many times that my knees were soon begging me to stop. In fact, at the end of the day when I checked the health app on my phone, I discovered that I “climbed” more sets of “stairs” on that day than on any other day that summer. More climbing than in the mountains in southern France, more climbing than on the San Salvador, more climbing than on the days ahead on the West Highland Way. 20 miles of constant up and down over rocks made what I thought would be a rather easy day into maybe the most difficult of the summer.
So not only was the walk exhausting, but it took a long, long time. Because I had to be so careful, I was moving so much more slowly than I usually do when I hike. I figured I would be having lunch around 2:00 at the latest, but the hour came and went and I kept trying to peer through the thick cover of trees to search for the Inn somewhere in the distance, but I only continued to see nothing. Nothing but more gray water, more green trees, more sharp rocks. I stopped for a break and checked my guidebook and read that the kitchen of the Inn would close at 4:00 and I checked the time again and worried that I wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to pick up my pace and sometimes I could walk quickly for a few steps but inevitably I would have to slow down as I was greeted with a muddy pit or a pile of rocks.
Finally, I made it to the Inversnaid Hotel. It was after 4:00 and I tried to keep my expectations low, figuring that at least I could order something to drink and take off my shoes and rest my feet. I dropped my bag off in a side room where hikers could keep their things, and changed out of my muddy shoes, then went off to find the bar. To my great luck, the kitchen was opened until 4:30 so I ordered a giant sandwich and a mound of fries and an icy coke.
I wanted to stay there forever. Or at least check into a room and not have to do any more walking for the rest of the day. I had another 6 1/2 miles to go and I guessed that much of it would be along the same sort of path that I had been tediously and carefully picking my way through for hours. It was just after 5 when I left the Inn; on just about any Camino day in my last three years of walking, I would have been long settled into my albergue, showered and cleaned, and set up at a bar with a glass of wine and my journal.
“The West Highland Way isn’t the Camino,” I told myself as I set off again. The next few hours continued to be somewhat challenging, but I felt more relaxed. I’d eaten plenty of food and had renewed energy, plus I knew that I could take as long as I needed to. I had a bed reserved in a cabin at Beinglas Farm Campsite, and the sun didn’t set until after 9pm. No one was waiting for me, and there wouldn’t be much to do once I arrived in Inverarnan, other than shower and have dinner.
So I took my time and amused myself by singing silly songs, and eventually, the path moved away from the shore of the loch and opened up to some new views.
I finally hobbled into Beinglas Farm Campsite around 8:00pm. There was a pub on the grounds of the campsite and I checked in there. The guy behind the bar handed me a key to a small cabin that I had reserved, saying, “It’s all yours.”
“All mine?” I responded. I’d only reserved a bed and figured that I would be sharing with others, but this was another reminder that the West Highland Way wasn’t the Camino. Turns out that reserving a cabin means you have it all to yourself. Maybe. I’m actually still not sure how it works- when I emailed my reservation I asked for a bed in a shared cabin, and then I paid 15 pounds- certainly not the 40 pounds I should have paid to have it all to myself. Maybe no one wanted to share with me?
The cabin was basic- really basic- but it was all I needed. A mattress to sleep on, a roof over my head, and even a little heater that kept the room nice and toasty. I showered and then headed back to the pub, where I ordered a light dinner and drank a glass of wine. The pub was filled, and I noticed one or two other people on their own but mostly people were in pairs, or small groups.
But I found that I didn’t mind that I was alone, in fact, it was adding to the adventure of the whole thing- just me and my pack and my stick (oh yeah, I found a new one earlier that morning!), out in the great wild Highlands of Scotland. Bring on Day 3!
I think I knew within a few minutes of setting off on the West Highland Way that I’d made the right decision. When I’d been trying to figure out my summer plans, I had wanted to do it all: another writer’s retreat in France, another return to the Camino and to Spain, AND I wanted to do something new. A trek in a different place. But in the middle of my travels, and especially when I got sick, I wondered why I had decided to tack on a trip to Scotland. It felt like a bit too much.
That changed the instant I got off the train in Milngavie and made my way to the start of the West Highland Way. My shoes were laced tight, my pack was loaded up, my hand felt a little empty without a walking stick but otherwise I felt ready to walk. And I was so excited to be walking in a new place.
The beginning of the WHW is about 10 miles past the center of Glasgow, in the suburban village of Milngavie (there were a lot of town names I had trouble pronouncing, but this is perhaps the most perplexing: “mullguy”. Sounds nothing like it looks). It’s possible to start walking in Glasgow, and my guidebook had a good map detailing the way; maybe if I ever walk the trail again I’ll do this, but because I was short on time I did what most people do, and took the 30-minute train ride to the official starting point.
It was past 8:30am but only a few people were milling about the main street of the village. Some shops were just opening and I looked around curiously. The skies were gray, there were dark patches on the pavement from the recent rain. I approached the obelisk that marks the beginning of the trail, and noticed a girl in hiking gear lingering nearby as well. We smiled shyly at each other, then offered to take each others’ photos. We continued to chat for a moment or two, then I waved to her as she set off down the trail.
I wanted to put a little distance between us, so I waited around at the start of the trail for awhile, reading the informational posts, retying my shoes. August is the busiest time for the West Highland Way, but I still wasn’t sure what that meant. Would the trail be crowded? Did I have to worry about not being able to feel like I was walking on my own? I already had my beds reserved for each night of the walk, but would the places where I was staying feel cramped, overrun?
I’d stalled long enough, and finally, I started walking. I walked 19 miles that first day- about 30km- and by the end of the day, I felt really, really happy. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt such happiness, but I’ll try to explain it as best as I can. Aside from a few bursts of sunlight, the day was overcast and windy and cool. Ideal walking conditions for many, but I always prefer blue sky and at least some sun. I had brief, friendly interactions with about a dozen people, but no real conversations or connections. There was a large hill/small mountain (still don’t really know the difference) to climb at the very end of the day and it wore me out. By the time I got to where I was staying- a private room at the Oak Tree Inn- I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in bed and watch the Olympics (which, for awhile, I did).
All of this, and I felt nothing but happy. Happy, and excited for the next four days. I think it might go back to that very initial feeling of wonder and awe that I had at the beginning of my trip, when I was settled in my bunk in Bath, England. Just 24-hours before I had been in my apartment, and suddenly I had gotten myself to a very different place. Just like that; it’s easy, and yet, it also requires something of us.
I’d made it through my first day on the West Highland Way, and I guess it gave me the feeling that I could walk anywhere that I want in this world. Scotland is definitely a much easier country to navigate than many others, but the thing is, I think I’d forgotten what it was like to be somewhere completely new. Scotland reminded me of all the exploring I still want to do, and it made me feel like it was all still possible. If I want to walk around the world, I probably can. I just have to decide to do it. If I needed more proof of how much I love this thing- walking alone for great distances- then I got it on the West Highland Way. All I really need is my pack and a good pair of shoes and a walking stick. To be feeling healthy. Some good coffee in the morning, a warm meal at night. It’s a pretty simple recipe for happiness.
The scenery for most of the first day was okay; technically, the beginning of the walk was considered to still be in the suburbs of a large city (though the path was tucked away in parks and woodland), but very quickly it moves into the countryside. For the first half of the day I was crisscrossing with a large family who were out for a day hike- kids and parents and grandparents- and at some point the girl from the obelisk in Milngavie had joined up with them. After a few miles I walked under a drizzle, soon the drizzle turned into a steady rain. I pulled on my rain jacket and when I passed one of the members of the large family, the grandfather, maybe, he turned towards me and opened his arms out wide. Then he turned his face up to the sky, raindrops splashing on his cheeks. “It’s wonderful to be alive, isn’t it?”
The rain only lasted for about 10 minutes, and that was the only rain I walked under on the 5-day hike. Supposedly the weather in the Highlands is fickle and unpredictable; locals told me that it could be pouring rain in one area, while 5 minutes down the road it might be dry. On Day 3 of the walk I was ordering a sandwich at a cafe and the woman behind the counter shook her head in sympathy when I told her I was hiking. “I’m sorry about the weather,” she said. I only looked at her in surprise. “But the weather’s been great!” I replied. “No rain at all!”
The trail wasn’t too crowded on the first day, but that was probably the most crowded I saw it for my entire walk. There seemed to be a lot of people out for a day-hike, but there were several small groups of thru-hikers as well, loaded down with large packs and muddy boots. I said hello to everyone I passed, but it seemed as though other hikers were taken aback by my friendliness. Not all of them, but enough of them. That seemed to be the trend during my hike- I’d try to make eye contact and smile and a good number of people didn’t even really look in my direction, and if they did, they smiled lightly and just kept walking. Many hikers were in pairs or groups, and a lot were camping. It felt like everyone was doing their own thing, which is a very different experience from the Camino. Different, but it wasn’t bad. It almost felt easier to walk my own walk and stay alone and independent when I knew that the chance at community wouldn’t be as easy to find.
But while the other thru-hikers seemed to be in their own worlds, the locals were beyond friendly. I suppose that’s the case in some parts of Spain too, as I walked the Camino, but the difference there is that I couldn’t speak Spanish and communicate with them. But in Scotland? On some parts of the walk, it seemed as though I was getting stopped every 30 minutes or so, by someone who wanted to say hi. That was it! They just wanted to know how things were going- no one exclaimed over my being alone, no one warned me about the hard days ahead. They asked where I was headed to that day, and where I was from- often there was a quick comment about Trump and the upcoming election when they heard that I was American- but mostly it seemed that the locals just wanted to share their love of the Highlands. And I think they wanted to make sure that I was enjoying it too. They seemed pleased when my face would light up, when I talked about how great the weather was, how beautiful the scenery, how much I was enjoying myself.
About 10 miles into the walk I met a man coming in the opposite direction; he was from somewhere in northern Scotland and had walked the West Highland Way dozens of times. We talked for at least 20 minutes, as he told me about the best times of the year to walk, his favorite sections of the trail. He asked about the towns I was staying in, and told me that doing the walk in 5 days would be fine. “Let me see your pack,” he said. When he saw that it wasn’t too big, he nodded. “5 days won’t be too hard, don’t worry.”
The highlight of the day might have been coming across my first “Honesty Box”. There were several of these set up along the West Highland Way: tables full of bottled water, baskets filled with candy bars, and in this first instance, a large cooler filled with ice cream and popsicles. A sign showed the price of each item and there was always a lock-box to drop some coins into. But ice cream in the middle of a vast and empty countryside! (Well, there was a tiny village with a few buildings, but I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere). What a special treat.
20-miles was a big first day, and I had equally- and longer- days ahead. Most of the walk had been fairly flat and not difficult, but the day ended with a winding trail up the side of a small mountain called Conic Hill. The trail was steep, and my legs hurt. Up and up and up, and as I climbed the wind grew stronger, the air cooler. When I walked I worked up a sweat, but as soon as I stopped for a break I began to shiver. Dark clouds swirled around the sky and as I approached the top of the climb I squinted out towards the horizon. I was at the southern edge of Loch Lomond, the largest area of fresh water in Britain. From where I was standing, I was at the start of a 23-mile path that would wind its way along the edge of the lake; but that would be tomorrow’s walk.
For now, I just had to follow the steep descent down the hill and into the town of Balmaha, my destination for the night.
I felt like I stumbled into town with aching feet, heavy legs, my hair in tangles. But I was looking forward to my bed for the night; because I booked rather late, the cheaper beds in the bunkhouse were all taken, so I had to reserve a room at the Inn. It was an expensive night- the most expensive of the summer- but I welcomed the luxury with open arms.
I checked into my tiny room with the cleanest, shiniest bathroom I’d ever seen, and the first thing I noticed was a tray filled with mugs and tea bags and several packet of shortbread cookies. So I took a shower and then heated some water and crawled under the heavy comforter to eat some cookies, drink some tea, and watch some of the semi-final men’s Olympic tennis match. I didn’t want to move from the bed, and I only left for a quick trip over to the Inn’s restaurant for dinner (fish and chips and a tall pint of beer), and then I returned to bed for more tea, more cookies, more Olympics.
A good first day on the West Highland Way. I knew that the days ahead would be more difficult, but finally, my excitement outweighed my nervousness. I couldn’t wait to see what would be next.