Now that I'm safely ensconced back in London life, I want to make sure I reflect on these past few days of hiking the West Highland Way, which was such a special experience and just the right combination of challenge and fun!
So for starters, my friend Meredith and I didn't actually hike the whole damn thing, which is 96 miles. We wanted to, but we also wanted to see the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and visit the Isle of Skye, and with only one week to work with, that meant difficult choices had to be made. So we decided to hike the northern half - supposedly both the more beautiful and the more challenging half - starting in Crianlarich and ending in Fort William, which would take us three days across about 49 miles, or 79km. It. Was. Awesome.
After arriving in Crianlarich (aka Crackleberry) the night before, we set off just after 8am, carrying our daypacks. Fortunately for us, we'd tracked down the fantastically-named Frazer of Ginger Routes, who for only £24 carried our luggage from door-to-door every day - best £24 I've ever spent! Call it cheating all you want, but there is something to be said for tossing a full Camelbak, an extra jacket and pair of socks, maybe a poncho, and a packed lunch (which most lodgings along the way offer) into your light 'n lithe pack and just going.
The weather wasn't so hot that first day (literally and figuratively), but we were both pretty pumped as we left Crianlarich, heading up a hill to join up with the official trail. We've been friends for about 20 years, so as you can imagine, this was a great trip for banter, mutual teasing, and inside jokes. Especially because it's cute when Meredith thinks she's funny. (Oh, snap!)
That first day, somewhat fortunately, would be the worst - not only in terms of weather, but also because it largely paralleled a road and a railway for pretty long stretches. The cool thing about that, though, was that when we'd return to London by train a few days later, we'd end up retracing a lot of our steps: "Hey, there's the river spot where we stopped for lunch!"
Anyway, there weren't any major hills this first day. We passed the ruins of St. Fillan's Chapel and its graveyard, the Auchtertyre Farm and its wigwams, a surprisingly large team-building center in the little town of Tyndrum (pronounced "tine-drum," not "tin-drum," Meredith), a stone viaduct, fields of purple heather, the hilarious Green Welly Stop shop, a boot with a flower planted on it, and the Lochan of the Legend of the Lost Sword, where Robert the Bruce and his men supposedly abandoned their heavy weapons after the Battle of Dalrigh, in order to be able to flee the Clan MacDougall. Fun fact: a "lochan" is a little lake (tm: Scotland).
It drizzled most of the day, but we mostly stayed dry. At one point when the rain started to get a little heavier, rather than reach for my brand-new rain pants and proper jacket, I instead pulled out a quick-fix plastic poncho (or "full body condom," as we called it), and thereby looked absolutely ridiculous for the next hour. But hey, my jacket matched my hiking trainers, so at least I wasn't lacking style. Plus, I rustled when I walked!
We passed the point where most people stop for the night at Bridge of Orchy, in part because our guidebook described it as, "a one-horse kind of town, only the horse has left town in search of excitement."
Instead, we hiked on another hour to Inveroran, which we think may actually be where that horse went. Inveroran is ... well, "village" doesn't cover it. It's one pub/inn, which has something like 9 rooms, all of which were booked well in advance, leaving us to bunk with...Maurice. Maurice lives in literally the only other house in Inveroran. One pub and Maurice's house--that's it. It was awesome. We had a cozy second bedroom, drinks and dinner at the pub with a bunch of other hikers coming in and out, and even got to pet a friendly deer who clearly has Maurice wrapped around her little finger (/hoof). He even told us of the Fleming clan who live in the region, as in Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. They hunt grouses in their tweed, apparently, and don't like to mingle with the riffraff. Maurice made clear what he thought of that (note: Maurice has a ponytail and likes to gossip about the locals. So much drama!)
In spite of the rain, a terrific first day. And I slept soundly that night.
Meredith!!! I whispered urgently, moments after dragging myself out of bed at Maurice's house. It's sunny!!!
We hadn't even dared to dream how good the weather might be that second day in Scotland. It was sunny and warm and gorgeous, and there we were, perplexedly changing into our sleeveless shirts within half an hour on the trail (and I thought I'd been a fool to even pack mine!).
Day 2 was money. The scenery was stunning. We crossed over one of the wildest and largest moors in the UK, following an old military road and passing a ruined stone cottage. There was practically no one else on the trail with us, which made it feel even more gloriously isolated than it already is. We stopped for a snack at the Glen Coe Ski Centre, snickered at the fact that Scotland has ski centers (you'll have to excuse us for that--we're from Colorado/Switzerland, after all!), skipped across past the Kingshouse pub and hotel, and from there ... up the dreaded Devil's Staircase, the toughest climb in the entire West Highland Way.
Now, Devil's Staircase was described in our book as "a series of switchbacks," a description with which we quickly took offense because switchbacks my foot. You know how switchbacks typically go across and then back? (that being part of the name, after all.) Yeah, apparently in Scotland it means, "walk vertically straight up a mountain, and then at some point turn imperceptibly to the right/left, and then keep walking vertically straight up that same mountain." Soooooo many missed opportunities for switchbacks, people!
After we finally reached the top and my life stopped flashing before my eyes, we were rewarded with 360-degree views of valleys and reservoirs, and we sat down to photograph our sandwiches and fight off those pesky Scottish August midges.
You know what's great about midges? They're slow, so you can simply avoid them altogether by outwalking them. You know what sucks about midges? Literally everything, the moment you stop. In other words, never, ever stop moving.
Post-summit, we started our long descent into our destination for the night, Kinlochleven. Meredith then started spontaneously rapping about "Kin-lock-LOVIN'" and referring to herself as "M Dawg," which was both funny and disturbing, and I was forced to send apologetic looks towards anyone we passed for her behavior.
We made it down into the little town, still enjoying beautiful weather, and bunked up at the MacDonald Hotel & Cabins for the night, which sported an awesome little bar with a wicked view at sunset. At this point we were recognizing a few of the other hikers we'd seen along the past two days, and there was a real sense of community to the place. Meredith couldn't stop babbling about how happy she was, and I felt the same just reflecting on what a killer day this had been. We were indeed lovin' life in Kinlochleven!
And for our ultimate day, we set off from Kinlochleven to the endpoint of the West Highland Way in Fort William. We were slightly worse for the wear on our last morning on account of a) the steep climb that begins immediately after leaving the hotel, and b) the fact that last night's killer sunset view came with a bar, and the related fact that that bar came with many, many drinks.
Anyway, we dragged ourselves up the final steep hill of the entire hike, which at least boasts beautiful views down onto Loch Leven, to find ourselves in Lairigmor, the Great Pass, surrounded by large hills (or as the Scottish call them, "mountains"). This third and last day was again really sunny and warm, and we passed through forests and woodlands. I tried to pet one of the many passing sheep, but no dice - quick little buggers, they are!
This being the last leg, I suspect many people do it as a simple day trip, and the trail was more crowded than on the two previous days, although still not too bad. My feet were starting to tell the tale of "Hey, didn't we already do this yesterday and the day before?" but overall, both of us were very sorry to know that the trail was gradually coming to an end.
When we reached Fort William, a town of about 10,000 people at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles (1,346m / 4,414ft), there was at first total confusion. The sign said we'd reached the end of the trail, but more specifically, the "original" end of the trail. Whaaaaaat, I hear you asking?
Turns out the trail was officially extended to go through town and there is now a "new" end to the West Highland Way in downtown Fort William itself. Well, fine. We went to BOTH - are you happy now? And then it was time for a pat on the back and a high five, after nixing the idea of a hug because, well, we were all sweaty.
This was such a great hike. Great company, challenging climbs, incredible luck with the weather, and a sense of a accomplishment at the end. I sincerely wish we'd had time to do the whole thing, which I'm sure would have been an even bigger sense of accomplishment, too.
My biggest takeaway from the entire experience was this: turns out I love point-to-point hiking. I'd never done it before, always either doing day hikes or in-and-out hikes. In fact, up until a few years ago, I pretty much didn't hike at all. But now I'm already thinking of the next one! I've got a backpack, trainers, and quadriceps that just won't quit!
Until next time, Scotland. Thanks for everything.