Dispatch from the Highlands: Part Two

In June 2017, Tom decided to hike the West Highland Way. The result, other than copious blisters and a bad back, is this series of articles. The names of all involved have been changed.

Despite this being Scotland, the weather had been sunny and warm on day one of the hike, and it had stayed warm and dry overnight. As a consequence, I was the happiest I have ever been in a tent. I had woken up dry, I had actually slept, my back didn’t hurt, and the first day of the hike had been a complete success. It is only natural then that things would become more and more difficult from here on.

Dean had bought his walking boots not long before the hike, and hadn’t walked them in quite as much as he needed to. So, on the morning of the second day of our seven day hike, he was patching up his already wounded feet with bandages. His feet blistering after walking only twelve or thirteen miles was worrying, but I was still confident that, should the walk carry on like this, on the evening of the seventh day we would be striding triumphantly into Fort William. I was wrong.

*

Dean, who had been the man consulting the guide while I had just mindlessly followed, informed me that there would be a hill on the route that day.

“It should be just before halfway, it’s called Conic Hill.”

“Right. Does it look hard?”

“Not sure,” Dean replied.

We pressed on, confident in our legs. Dean’s blisters irritated him, but the morning of the second day was rolling across stunning countryside. The views were fantastic, until, while crossing a bridge across a brook, we looked to our left to find a slightly chubby older gentleman having a shit. Worse, he was having a shit dangerously close to the brook. His fellow walkers stood oddly close to him, looking sheepish.

“Dean,” I began, “was he…?”

“Having a shit? Yeah, I think he was,” Dean replied.

“Jesus Christ.”

We walked on, the man’s strained look as he squeezed out his shit etched into my memories forever. My mind was swiftly moved on from this however by Conic Hill appearing in the distance. I don’t want to sound dramatic, and I have no doubt that, in spite of this, I will sound dramatic, but to my eyes, Conic Hill looked less like a hill and more like a mountain. I don’t know what the criteria is, when a hill turns into a mountain. There’s probably a scale, but I wasn’t aware of it. I just knew that the West Highland Way, rather than taking a route around this behemoth of a hill, decided it was better to go straight over the top of it.

Conic Hill looked bigger as it neared (which makes sense, I suppose), and it climbed sharply. At times it was a staircase, which was just unspeakably awful. It was my turn to carry the tent that day, and I cursed it with every step. I hated camping and I hated walking and whose stupid fucking idea was it to walk 100 miles across Scotland anyway?

It was mine. That was the worst bit about my cursing, I was cursing myself. But Dean was clearly cursing himself more, as to my surprise, he was beginning to fall behind. Dean was, and probably still is, much fitter than me. There is actual definition when he takes off his shirt. My abs are merely a rumour. There have been more sightings of Big Foot than there have my abdominal muscles, and I would put more money on the existence of a near-mythical creature than I would my ability to get a six pack. And yet he was steadily dropping back, and the competitive streak in me made me push on, with slightly more effort. It also made me, when I reached as high as the path on the Way took me, drop my bag and scramble up to the very top of the Hill, where a number of other hikers, either out for the day or Way walkers, were perched taking photographs and enjoying the view. Dean reached the top of the Way, and upon seeing me waving my arms manically at the top, simply shook his head and shouted “No!”

*

The lunch stop that day was in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond named Balmaha. It was, like almost every other village on the Loch, small but beautiful, and we sat outside the pub where almost every other Way walker had stopped for their lunch. It was there that the reason Dean had been left behind on the hill became painfully clear. His feet were a mess. He had gained blisters, and the ones that were left over from yesterday had opened up further and began to bleed. He was in for a rough afternoon.

We ate like kings to reward ourselves for conquering the Way’s first significant obstacle, and began the Way’s long stretch around the east side of Loch Lomond. It didn’t look too difficult in the guide, but once the Way curves around the Loch, it becomes undulating, and harder underfoot. I quickly left Dean behind again, and found myself waiting at various intervals. Eventually, I pressed on alone, and walked the rest of the afternoon ahead alone. When I finally dumped my bag at the beginning of the driveway to the youth hostel, I was fifteen minutes ahead of Dean, who walked up to me looking disconsolate. We didn’t talk much, I knew what he was thinking, and by the speed he was walking, I knew that his feet were getting worse.

We checked in and found the flying Dutchmen perched on a bench outside, sipping beers. We finally learned their names were Rik and Seb, and heard with relief that they had thought the day was hard too. We drank for a while, and Dean checked the guidebook to see what tomorrow had planned for us. He was not pleased with what he found. Because of how the towns and villages fall on the Way, if you are walking it in seven days, you have to do one day that covers just over 20 miles. Our guide said day three would be that day. Dean stared at the book, then looked up with genuine concern.

“It says, be sure that if you are to take on this day that you are 100% sure you’ll make it,” he said.

“I take it you’re not confident?”

“I don’t think I’ll make it to the first stop.”

*

We pushed that little dilemma quite literally down the Way for a while, and distracted ourselves by putting our tent up, and then taking a dip in Loch Lomond with Rik and Seb. It was a beautiful, warm night, and the sky was a brilliant blue above mountains (hills?) that seemed to grow straight out of the lake. I had neglected to pack swimwear, thinking that even though we were walking in June, it definitely would not be swimming weather, so I made do with a skimpy pair of boxer shorts, and had a swim round to the front of the hostel. I didn’t stay swimming for long, though, it made me a want a beer, so after we had been in the lake for all of two minutes we clambered out and went and found dinner.

The night was again mercifully dry, and we slept soundly (after about an hour of Dean doing some reasonably major self-surgery on his feet). The morning was still dry, for the moment, but the clouds were becoming close, and last night’s blue sky above the Loch had become grey and misty. And then, almost immediately after we left the youth hostel at Rowardennan, it started to rain. Light and misty at first, it soon turned into a steady drizzle that looked like it was set for the day.

To make things infinitely worse, and, in terms of the walk, fatally so for Dean, the going underfoot was terrible. The third day, however far you walk, is the day that you navigate most of the east coast of Loch Lomond, for a large part with a sharp drop to your left, and tree roots and rocks to your right. The tree roots and rocks often make their way onto the path, and at points, become the path, so your day is less spent walking and more spent scrambling up damp rock faces in the rain.

Dean, like the day before, began to fall behind, and while I waited for him at a break in the woods caused by a cottage and an honesty box containing cookies and orange juice (thank you to the occupant of that cottage), I noticed that I was finally meeting the fearsome Scottish midge. A midge is a tiny insect that is much, much more of a bastard than its name makes it sound. I hadn’t seen any in the hot sun, but the misty rain had brought them to me. They swarm around the human body, covering it with bites until it looks like the aftermath of a wedding buffet. I sprayed insect repellent, and it had absolutely fuck all effect. I could feel the bites happening as I stood there, pathetically wafting at the midges, cursing Dean for taking so long, and cursing myself for thinking walking in the Scottish Highlands for a week was a good idea.

*

Dean caught up again, cursing the midges, his feet, the weather, Scotland in general, just about everything up to his very existence. I walked behind him for a second, and noticed his limping was by now quite severe.

“Which did you say was your worse foot?” I asked.

“Both,” came the blunt reply.

“Ah.”

I stayed behind him for a minute or two, as if I could will him to walk faster. I couldn’t, and then I got a phone call. Amazingly, the abandoned rainy shores of Loch Lomond had signal. It was Mari, a close friend of mine.

“You’re doing what?!”

“I’m walking the West Highland Way.”

“And how’s that going?”

I told her about Dean, specifically Dean’s feet.

“Not well, then.”

“Not exactly. I’ll have to go, I need to catch up with him.”

I needn’t have been so rushed. I had spent ten minutes stood still on the phone, and yet in less than a minute I was at Dean’s back.

*

I left Dean behind again (this was not the Army and I was starving, wet, and cold), and walked in to the first scheduled stop of the day: Inversnaird. It was billed in the guidebook as a village, but when I arrived gracefully by falling down a set of slippery steps, mercifully being saved by the contents of my rucksack, I saw it was essentially just a hotel. A hotel that looked like it had come straight from the set of Cocoon. Everyone there was old. I sat on a bench outside, being drizzled on watching the elderly population of Europe. (As well as being old everyone in Inversnaird seemed to be Dutch or German or French.) They pottered around, strolling around the tiny village and looking out at Loch Lomond, which was barely visible through the fog, so they just stood and looked out at white expanse. I wondered whether any of them thought this would be what the afterlife was like.

Dean came into view on the trail leading into the village. He was moving slowly, deliberately planting one foot in front of the other carefully, wincing as he did. Eventually, he thumped down onto the bench next to me, dumping his bag at his feet.

“I need to go home mate,” he said at last.

“I know.”

“Are you going to stay?”

Before I could answer, as if by providence, Seb and Rik walked into Inversnaird. They saw us and walked over.

“What’s going on guys?” Seb asked.

“I’m going home,” Dean answered.

“No! Why?” Seb exclaimed.

“My feet are bleeding.”

“Oh, that’s shit man.”

“What are you gonna do?” Seb turned to me.

“I think I’m going to carry on,” I said. I wasn’t sure why, but I had resolved while waiting on the bench that despite I was so wet my testicles were damp, that despite being so cold I wasn’t even really sure I still had testicles, I was going to walk the West Highland Way. Inversnaird marked about a third of the way there, and since I had walked about 30 miles, what was another 60? I didn’t fancy doing it alone, though.

“Well, walk with us,” he offered.

I gladly accepted. Dean went off to find a way back home, which from Inversnaird, turned out to be inconvenient and long-winded. The Way isn’t quite as remote as it feels when you’re walking it, but Inversnaird is about as remote as it gets. He would have to take a boat across the Loch, catch a bus, and then a train back down south to Leeds. He told me after I returned home that when he reached the bus station, he had just the right amount of money for a bus to Glasgow and to the train. I have no idea what he would have done had he not had enough.

With Dean gone, the plan for the rest of the day adjusted. It was past lunchtime and walking another fifteen or so miles seemed stupid. Seb and Rik told me they were camping in Inverarnon that night, the stop favoured by most of the walkers that day, and since they were now my only company, I was set on joining them.