There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.
So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)
We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.
My backpack held the following:
– a sleeping bag
– 3 pairs of socks + underwear
– 3 tops
– light trousers for sleeping
– an extra fleece
– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit
– a travel towel
– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee
– a map, a compass
– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)
DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km
Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.
Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.
Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)
Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.
DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km
One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.
Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)
Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.
The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.
I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.
DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km
I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.
Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:
– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world
– you are in the fresh air
– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)
– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day
– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)
– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step
It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.
And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)
Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:
– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal
– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it
DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km
The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.
Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.
It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.
On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.
At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.
Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.