The West Highland Way is my first long distance path. In Spain we walked every second day for about 15 km; in Scotland I’m walking 5 days of varying length followed by a recovery day then another 4 days. The distances don’t seem bad — no more than 22 km on the longest day — but I’m aware that we’re walking in the Highlands, as in up and high. And presumably, down and low.
The first day takes us 20 km along river banks and through the wooded suburbs north of Glasgow. It’s Saturday on a holiday weekend, so there are lots of people about — day trippers, joggers, people walking dogs. As we pass, we’re greeted with a cheerful “hiya!” Niall is coiled like a spring. He bolts ahead to scout out shooting locations. He sets up his tripod at the top of a hill on a country road and is amused by the sudden braking when cars spot him by the side of the road.
The last bit is a slog along asphalt, but we arrive on time and intact. I have a sore foot which seems to be due to nothing more serious than wearing too thick socks. Phew.
Day two is shorter but steeper. We climb steadily toward Connich Hill, which gives us our first view of Loch Lomond. It’s now Sunday on a holiday weekend and the promised heatwave has arrived — yes, it’s sunny and high teens. The crowd is indescribable. Imagine the worst picture you’ve ever seen of crowds jostling to take a sunset picture in Zion. Then double it and add small children and mud-caked dogs. We stop for lunch, perched near the precipice where Julian swears no one will stand in front of us.
A half-hour later a fellow in expensive hiking kit who should know better does just that.
After dinner that evening, Niall and Julian hike back up Connich Hill to catch the setting sun.
Day 3, Niall warns me, is hump day. Just like Wednesday in a work week. The day when the restorative powers of the previous weekend have faded and the next weekend is too far away for hope. He reassures me that the hike itself that day is easy.
We follow the lakeshore through oak and birch woods. Another sunny day. Pale yellow primroses and the first bluebells bloom in the dappled shade. He has told me the path is dead flat. The guidebook gently describes it as “undulating” which is walker-speak for up and down. Maybe it’s just a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I pause at the bottom of each rise, on the verge of tears. The thought of climbing again only to stagger down the other side is almost too much to bear.
When we reach our hotel, I collapse onto the bed and sleep for 3 hours. Niall and Julian race up Ben Lomond and back again in the time it takes me to recover, a trip for which the guidebook recommends 5-7 hours. Clearly I’m in the presence of Walking Gods and I mustn’t be too hard on myself.
With Hump Day behind me, I approach Day 4 with optimism.
The first half is awesome. I’ve sorted out the sock problem and found my stride. We spend the morning up high in a pine forest. The day is cloudy but not cold, good for walking. A man from Wiltshire dampens my spirits a bit when he tells us “the worst is ahead of us.” Julian claims not to know what he’s talking about, saying the guidebook said only that some walkers found the next section “difficult.” I’ve noticed before that his normally precise mind becomes inexplicably vague whenever we walk.
We hit the halfway mark at lunch time. It starts to rain, driving walkers onto the porch of an obliging hotel. The rain gear and hiking poles come out. We set off along the lakeshore again for the next 10 km. It’s beautiful, like walking the Bruce Trail along Lake Huron. Only the trail is ankle-deep in mud. Actually the trail is just a series of rocks and boulders to be scrambled. And long muddy precipitous descents. Everyone on the trail looks exhausted. The women look pissed, as in “I’m never walking with you again.” One woman in her 60s trails her fit 40-ish son as he strides along with an umbrella held jauntily above his head. She has a raincoat strapped to her backpack, but she trudges along in the drenching rain in utter submission to the elements.
Our end point is an inn in the middle of nowhere. The Drover’s Inn claims to be more than 300 years old. It certainly seems like that was the last time it had a coat of paint. Chunks of ceiling look ready to drop onto the head of the receptionist who checks us in. The room is appalling. Niall and Julian head immediately to the bar. I can’t walk. It takes almost an hour before I can stand up straight enough to take a shower.
When I make it to the pub, I can see why the boys haven’t returned. A fire is blazing at the end of the room. Sun shines in long shafts through the mullioned windows. The staff wears kilts and t-shirts that say “Pub of the Year — 1705.” They have shaved heads, pierced noses and tats, and they’re as cheerful as all get out. I order a double G’n’T and a Scottish salmon salad plate.
It turns out that my Hump Day is Day 4.