The End of a Long Walk; Day Five on the West Highland Way, Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis, 24km

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.

Wild and Remote; Day 4 on the West Highland Way, Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven, 35km

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.


I have found my future home.

 

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.

Looking back on the Devil’s Staircase (it was harder than it looks!)

 

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.

Can you spot my walking stick in this photo?

 

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.

“You’re looking awfully casual for a walk like this” (it’s only walking); Day 3 on the West Highland Way, Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy, 31km

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.

The Loch that Never Ends; Day Two on the West Highland Way; Balmaha to Inverarnan, 32km

“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!

There’s always a mountain at the end; Day 1 on the West Highland Way, Milngavie to Balmaha 30km (19 miles)

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.

The Next Adventure: 5-days on the West Highland Way

Scotland- the land of kilts, whiskey, ruddy-faced men and a dish called haggis. Clichés? Sure. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about Scotland before my 5-day walk on the West Highland Way, and I only learned about haggis when I was planning my trip. Vague images from the movie Braveheart swirled through my mind, and I always meant to do research about this place that I was headed to, to at least read up on a little history, a little about the cuisine and the culture and the landmarks, but I didn’t have time. Or maybe I didn’t want to make the time.

One thing I love about traveling is that I’m exploring something that is, to me, completely unknown. And the less I know about a place I’m going to, the more open I am to whatever awaits me. So I think there was part of me that just wanted to arrive in Scotland and… see. Just see what was there, let my experience be my teacher.

What do I know about Scotland, now that I’ve walked about 100 miles through its hills and mountains and moors? Whatever I know, it’s hard to put into words.

Maybe that’s why it’s been taking me so long to write these posts. I left Scotland (and Europe) to fly home on August 20th, a full month ago. I keep thinking about writing, and sometimes I craft my blog posts as I’m out on a hike, thinking that I’ll come straight home and write, but I never do.

It felt easier to write about the Camino, maybe because I’ve done it before. I was never writing about Spain, not really, though parts of the culture and the countryside did seep into my words. But on the Camino I was always writing about the journey- there was always a bigger story that I was telling.

On the West Highland Way? I was walking. I was on a vacation. I was on an adventure. I was alone. I liked being alone. I liked haggis- no, actually, I loved haggis. I had no expectations. I wasn’t really walking towards anything, even if I had an end point. I was happy. I didn’t overthink things. Things were easy. Things were hard. I felt like I belonged there.

I’m sure there’s a story in there, somewhere, and I’m sure I’ll find it as I write about my trek. But while the Camino felt like a pilgrimage, while it’s always felt like a pilgrimage, the West Highland Way felt like a long walk in a beautiful place. I thought that maybe my days in Scotland would be like a continuation of my Spanish Camino, but that wasn’t the case. I was just out for a walk. An incredible, challenging, beautiful walk.

But when I started, I didn’t know what I heading into. All I knew is what I had just finished. My final day in Spain was spent in Santiago: the morning was full of errands: printing out boarding passes and picking up my extra luggage and finding souvenirs and remembering where my favorite corners of the city were. I always meant to write an entire post about this day but that’s going to wait for another time, maybe (most likely) a time that will never come; in any case, the day in Santiago was relaxed and easy and perfect. I retired early to my private room and, with a package of cookies and my West Highland Way guidebook, I crawled into bed.

I spent about an hour reading through the guide, really studying the first two days of the trek. I pulled out a pen and made some notes in the margins- places where I could stop to eat, a good lookout that I didn’t want to miss. But as I continued reading, studying the same words over and over, I began to get a little nervous. It seemed as though on every other page, there was a warning: Do Not Underestimate How Long It Will Take You To Walk. I flipped back, studied the maps, looked at the elevation profiles, and chose to mostly ignore those words. I was an experienced walker, after all. I’d always been fast on the Camino, why would it be any different on a path in Scotland?

But in the back of my mind I knew that I had no idea what I would be walking into. The West Highland Way is not the Camino, and I could feel a tremor of nervousness as I wondered how difficult the terrain would be, what the weather would be like, if I would get lost on the trail.

I flew first to London, then to Scotland the next morning. During the first flight I had an easy and fun two-hour conversation with the pilgrim seated next to me, and as we were about to part ways in the airport in London (where I had a long layover), he gave me a big hug and wished me luck. It felt like a good omen, and one final, last-minute Camino friend.

But when I arrived in Glasgow, I was greeted with gray skies and a steady rain. The tremor of nervousness was back, a little stronger this time. I wasn’t happy walking in the rain for the ten minutes between the train station and my hostel; what was I going to do if I had days of weather like this?

I found my room and my bed (top bunk) and began to arrange my things for the next day. The room was mostly empty, except for two girls sitting together on one of the bunks, their heads bent low over an open book. I moved through the room quietly, trying not to make too much noise, but then I happened to glance out the window and I couldn’t help but gasp.

We were up on the 9th floor, and the large windows of our room overlooked parts of the city and the River Clyde. When I’d arrived at the hostel the view was nothing but gray with wet splashes of rain on the glass, but all at once there were gaps in the clouds and the sun burst through and a strong and solid rainbow was pouring from the sky and landing somewhere that felt just out of reach.

“It’s a rainbow!” I exclaimed, looking over to the two girls. Other than a smile when I had first arrived, we hadn’t said anything to each other. The girls exchanged glances and slowly came over to the window. I was grinning like an idiot because things like this make me happy, it felt like a really good omen for the days ahead.

And when the girls saw the rainbow, all shyness and coolness dropped and the three of us were exclaiming over the views, and crowding around the window to snap photos. Then we started talking, and I found out that they were also planning to walk the West Highland Way. We didn’t move for at least 20 minutes- standing there in front of the window as the rainbow slowly faded, but talking non-stop about the walk and our plans and what to expect.

Their names were Claire and Josephine, they were from the Netherlands and had walked Hadrian’s Wall the year before. “We loved it,” Claire said, “It was hard but we wanted to do something like it again. We’re taking 8 days to walk, how about you?”

I hesitated. When I told them I was going to walk in 5 days, their eyes opened wide and they poured over their guidebook. “But, like, that means that the end of your day 2 is the end of our day 4! Whoooooa.”

The tremor of nervousness roared its ugly head and I can’t really call it a tremor anymore. Was I crazy to be walking the route this fast? The distances were big: 30km, 32km, 31km, 35km, 24km, but when I planned the walk I reasoned that it wasn’t something I hadn’t done before. And after hiking in France and spending two weeks on a Camino, wouldn’t I be in fairly good shape?

But part of my nerves were due to the fact that I was locked in. The 96-mile route is, overall, much more isolated than 100-mile sections on the Camino Frances or the Camino del Norte. There are places to stay in every town that you pass through, but you don’t pass through a dozen in a day. And sometimes the only option in a given town or village is a pricey room in a bed and breakfast or an inn. Plus, because August was peak season for walkers on the West Highland Way, I’d needed to make all my reservations well in advance. My beds were booked; if I wanted to slow down because of fatigue or bad weather, it wasn’t really an option. If I was going to walk the entire route, it was going to have to be in 5 days.

“Good for you,” the girls said. “I think it’s amazing you’re going to walk it that fast.”

I laughed, but the laugh was shaky and thin. “Well, it’s only going to be amazing if I actually do it.”

I went to bed just after the sun went down, tucked under a sheet and a blanket, high up on a top floor of a tall building in the center of Glasgow. My phone was tucked under my pillow, the alarm was set for an early hour. I closed my eyes and shut out all the questions and the worries about what I was about to do, and instead only focused on the good things: I was in a brand new place. I was about to set out on another adventure. Even if was only fleeting, I’d made a few new friends that day. There had been a rainbow. A beautiful rainbow. One way or another, I would be okay.