Published: May 26th 2009May 26th 2009
I am embarrassed to write this entry. I am hanging my head in shame. My first attempt to hike the West Highland Way was a pretty dismal failure.
But in my defence, I have never long-distance hiked before. It was bound to be a rocky start. In retrospect, starting with a 7-day, 95 mile hike through rugged, hilly Highland territory all by my lonesome was pretty... ambitious... if not just plain fool-hearty.
It went like this. I intended to start on Monday, May 18. I was a barrel of nerves about it -- still only one day after getting back from my difficult hiking experience on the Isle of Arran (see last blog entry).
Late in the afternoon on Sunday, I checked the weather forecast. Not good. Rain. Cold, cold rain. I made a snap decision: why don't I wait just one week? The weather's predicted to improve by Friday. Plus, I need to do something about that pack.
So I did. I went and bought a new backpack, mailed back my old one along with any extras possible. Result: I shaved 10 lbs off my load. Much better.
Then I made another snap decision (as I am eternally wont to do) -- if I'm waiting a week, why not return to Edinburgh? So I did.
I felt guilty about this. 'I'm totally procrastinating,' I thought. So I was quite glad when -- still in Glasgow -- I overheard a couple from either Canada or the US (who can tell? I guessed Canada though) who were also set to walk the Way.
'Wow,' he said. 'That's some pretty aggressive weather. Snow in Fort William.'
'I saw that too,' I said with a tone of pseudo-experience. 'So I decided to wait it out.' And, that resolved, off I went to Edinburgh. And I'm glad I did: good people happen to me in Edinburgh.
Still, the Way loomed in my mind. It came up in a conversation I had with a girl from Brazil. 'They were predicting snow...' I said in justification for my cowardice.
'hmm,' she snorted. 'You're from Canada and you're not used to snow?' This kind of made me want to beat her up. And then force her to spend a nice long winter in Ottawa -- 'what do you think, Brazil? Used to it yet? Care for some snow camping?' But I didn't say anything like this, of course. I said, unsmilingly, 'well, I have enough experience with it to know I don't want to camp in it.'
So I had a lovely time in Edinburgh, always planning to start hiking on Monday. Monday, however, turned out to be a bank holiday, the second one in May -- who knew? (And why can't they come up with a name a little more interesting than 'bank holiday'? I don't know.)
So Thursday, I found myself without any luck finding accommodation for the weekend. Plus, I was feeling rather disappointed for not having run into a very charming guy from Texas that I'd had a lot of fun with on my first night in the city.
'Well, no time like the present,' I said. And, making one of my famous snap decisions, decided to start the Way on Friday.
However, I neglected at this point to fully take stock of my food supply. I'd already bought food for the trail when I was in Glasgow. However, I forgot that I'd already eaten some of it.
But my first day on the Way was fabulous. The weather was nicer than any I'd yet experienced in Scotland -- I think I got a slight sunburn. The Way starts inauspiciously and gets more dramatic after the fourth day of walking. So it wasn't too hilly, it mostly follows along cow and sheep pastures with the Highland mountains looming ahead in the distance. I walked the 12 miles in about four hours or so and stopped at a wee little campsite for the night (yes, I'm actually starting to use that expression in my head... it's quite infectous as it is really everywhere here.)
The campsite really was very small and was choc-a-block with other tents of fellow Way walkers -- people of all ages, 20s to 60s, primarily men. The atmosphere was totally friendly and trusting: everyone sharing in this big experience.
When I walked into the campsite, I recognized a guy I'd passed further up, heading in the opposite direction. (I initially passed the campsite before deciding it was my best bet for the night.) He was a nice English guy from South London. His tent was next to mine and we got to talking. He is an urban forest ranger and so we talked about Canadian versus Scottish forests and he explained to me why all the forests I've seen here seem to be mono-culture spruce trees in lines (poor forest management, he explained, but the situation is improving.) He dreams of seeing Canadian forests and will be going to Alberta later this year (the second guy in a row I've met here going to Alberta this year... odd.)
Anyway, so this guy, Matt, invited me to join him to a pub. I -- never one to decline today for the sake of tomorrow -- agreed. Word of advice: do not let Brittish folk buy you alcohol. They will not stop.
The atmosphere in this little Scottish pub, reputedly the oldest in Scotland, was lovely. It was a small room with a fireplace and men in kilts and a bartender from Ireland. It was crowded so Matt and I sat at the bar.
After he'd bought me three pints in succession (he on his fifth), I said 'oh, no. I'm good. If I have more, I'll be sick.'
Meanwhile I continued talking to a nice retired police officer -- he was originally from Glasgow but now living in this small town about an hour's drive north of the city. He's a widower and presently going through an unpleasant divorce to his second wife. He was a sweet man and gentlemanly and shyly kept inquiring how and why it was that I was not married (a question, I admit, I've begun to ask myself lately, too.)
When I turned back to the bar, there before me was a glass of very fine, straight up, 12 year old Scotch from Islay which Matt had peevishly bought for me. And then, not to be outdone, the retired police officer (whose name I didn't catch) ALSO bought me a glass of 12 year old Scotch once I'd finished my first one.
Both glasses were enormously fine, but, as you might imagine, I was pretty incapacitated on my way back to my tent, where I immediately crashed, fully dressed, having only managed to get one contact lens safely in its case.
The next morning, hungover with blistered feet from the previous day's walking, I felt somewhat annoyed at my kind English friend. We exchanged contact information and off we went -- he south with half a day's walk before him, and me north with 6 long days ahead of me. And that day it rained. There was no view, there was only mud, fog and a hangover. And, I realized, I was woefully short of lunch-type food. I had plenty of pasta. But nothing but nuts and dried fruit besides. Ah, snap decisions, not always my friend.
I got 7 miles -- mostly very steeply upwards and then even more steeply downwards -- and found a campsite at what should have been half-way for Day 2, and crashed. I woke up the next morning with a killer blister on my right foot and a painful swollen ankle on my left. I stayed a second night. The next morning, I finished the breakfast food I'd brought.
Realizing I was without adequate food supplies and already a day and a half behind (with a booked hostel room at the end of the Way), I returned, defeated, to Glasgow.
However, it is not the end of the world. My plans are changing slightly -- I may lean more to one or two day hikes and cheap rustic hostels, but the trip continues. And I'm loving Scotland, besides. I just have more respect for long-distance hiking now... and for how steep and high the mountains are.
Tomorrow, I will take the bus to the base of the final day's walk for the West Highland Way and camp there (in Glencoe) and then walk the 14 miles to Fort William to arrive at my booked hostel on Thursday night. Then I head down to the harbour town of Oban.
So there you have it... initially I was going to keep my shameful start to myself and hide from this blog, but decided to write about it anyway. Either way, it is all a grand adventure, loads of fun, with much ahead of me that I'm very much looking forward to. Ah, me and my ever-foolish fantastical plans... I try my best to do something with them, one way or another. Living life to its fullest, at the very least.