Glasgow — “We have come over heath and rock and river and bog to what in England would be called a horrid place,” wrote the poet John Keats in the summer of 1818, during a trek with his friend Charles Brown into the Scottish Highlands. “We have now walked 114 miles, and are merely a little tired in the thighs and a little blistered.”
Not bad for a five-foot tall, 19th century man who never knew the luxuries of Gortex and bug repellant and had only just recovered from a mysterious illness (rumoured to be venereal disease).
Keats drew his strength from this jaw-dropping Scottish scenery, which helped him transcend the limitations of what he called his “stature.” The landscapes, he wrote, “make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches.”
But let’s forget Keats who, after contracting a cold in Scotland that turned into acute tonsillitis, was finished off by tuberculosis three years later in Rome.
Unlike certain poets and wayfarers, four days into my six-day tramp along the West Highland Way — Scotland’s first and most popular long-distance hiking trail — every step of “the Way” I was reminded of my puny stature and life’s painful divisions.
Take day four. Clive and Jim were two 70-somethings I overtook while trudging through the deluge of day three. But during the next day’s 19-mile stage, they passed me somewhere between Crianlarich and Tyndrum, arriving a good hour before me at Bridge of Orchy.
Had my huge backpack not been transported by car each day to my designated hostel or B&B, I might not have felt so bad. That’s because Clive and Jim had hauled all their gear, on their backs, the entire 95 miles.
They were still chipper when I finally had the nerve to introduce myself that evening in the hotel bar.
“Most retired people are just counting their days till the end,” said the white-bearded, sprite-eyed and luxuriously-tanned Clive. The Brit once climbed part of Everest and most of the Appalachian Trail. “All you need to do is keep fit.”
“Cheers,” said Jim. They smiled at me across the table, and raised their glasses.
I smiled, but it felt more like a wince. I took a deep cold gulp, imagining their disgust at this traveler nearly half their age taking the easy way out. Not that the West Highland Way is a competitive activity. But, like a swelling blister, a rivalry festered, irrationally, inside me. In the shadow of these men, I felt like a charlatan.
After two pints, I stumbled back to the West Highland Way Sleeper, my railway station hostel. Rising steeply from the glen like a squat volcano, Beinn Dorain, a 3,529-foot “munro” (or peak over 3,000 feet) dominated the valley, soaking up the dregs of the disappearing sun at 10 pm. I felt even smaller.
In the hostel’s kitchen, a trio of Scottish teens were playing chess. They seemed none the worse for wear after their day-long hike. I inhaled my haggis-in-a-can and, joints aching and soles of my feet throbbing, entered the bunkhouse.
Collapsing into my bed, I remembered I had a 21-mile tramp the next day.
Where’d You Start Today?
Everyone in Scotland seems to have walked parts of the West Highland Way, which officially begins at a granite obelisk in a town called Milngavie, 20-minutes by train outside of Glasgow.
While marching along, you can jabber for hours beside total strangers, exchanging stories, discussing homelands, politics, customs and beer. “Where’d you start today?” and “Where are you headed tonight?” are excellent icebreakers.
I hiked solo, but I was rarely alone. On day two, I marched beside a man out walking his dog in the Garadhban Forest. Day three, in an old-growth oak grove beside Loch Lomond, I passed a couple who told me they’d done “the Way” seven years ago. “Today,” the man said from under the hood of his rain slicker, “we’re just out stretching our legs.”
That serious walkers intersect with the rhythms of local residents is one reason why the Way is one of the world’s best multi-day treks. It’s also adaptable to the hiker’s desire for creature comforts and unpredictable level of stamina. You can sleep in rooms with hot meals and showers, or pitch a tent and cook by the campfire. You can race through in six days (as I did) or extend the trip over seven, eight or even nine days (as many I met had wisely done). You can go alone or with a guided group.
I had selected the Way because the track is relatively flat. I figured the primary difficulty would be in motivating my tender feet and creaky knees to keep up a steady pace for six to ten hours, every day, for a week. The well-marked trail seemed doable for a novice like myself.
Besides, it traverses some of the Highlands’ most scenic glens, as well as skirting Britain’s largest lake, Loch Lomond, and Ben Nevis, its tallest mountain. With its incessantly varied vegetation and geology, this swath of west central Scotland does, as Keats said, “live in the eye.” In late May, I would cross carpets of wild onion, bluebell and primrose; I would see rabbit, sheep and feral goat; I would hear stone-chats, cuckoos and warblers.
Rather than take on all planning myself, I signed up with Mac’s Adventure, a walking tour company run by the enthusiastic Neil Lapping. Lapping arranged my lodging, baggage transport, and entire itinerary. He even lent me a pair of hiking boots. The evening before my departure, over beer in Glasgow’s West End, he debriefed me, pulling out the maps and guides I’d be using and explaining the beauty of the Way. “The experience can be social, or you can have peace and quiet,” Lapping promised.
He was right. Often following an 18th-century British military road, the trail penetrates zones of total isolation. But just when you need a phone booth, a plate of “neeps and champit tatties” (yellow turnips and mashed potatoes), or a pint of ale, a small hamlet appears around the bend. Those dangling McEwan’s and John Smith’s signs were like carrots on sticks. I began to think of the West Highland Way as a 95-mile pub crawl.
When my mood fluctuated, I didn’t attribute it to over-socialization or physical effort. But the weather sometimes dragged me down. By the end of day two, fog and drizzle seemed drawn to the loch. For most of the third stage, scrambling along the rocky trail that hugged the shoreline, I slogged through a steady downpour. At times, the trail was a cascade. Keats’ experience of July 26, 1818 was much the same: “Among these Mountains and Lakes … I have got wet through day after day — eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky, walked up to my knees in Bog, got sore throat.”
About two hours after passing Rob Roy’s Cave, a huge jumble of mossy boulders where the infamous outlaw/hero was said to hide out, I finally arrived at the Drovers Inn, a circa-1705 former shelter for Highland cattle drovers.
Never had I been more thankful for a bar this dingy and malodorous. The Drovers’ scintillating fireplace dried my gear. Its steak and Guinness pie warmed my insides. And the other shelter-seekers amused me. As afternoon changed into Saturday night, the mixed herd of tourists and locals grew more unruly. A pony-tailed guitarist played note-for-note replicas of anthems by Black Sabbath, Kansas and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Scruffy Scots tossed down pints and drams of whisky, then lifted their kilts to moon the hearth.
“Sweet home Alabama!” the mob of drunken Scots chanted until 1 am. “Where the skies are so blue!”
While beefy men with tattoos in Lord of the Rings Elvish script circumscribing their upper arms kept buying me drinks, Clive and Jim sat in the corner, silently sipping their beer.
I don’t remember if I ate oat-cake, but I did have whisky. Miraculously, I didn’t get sick.
Devil’s Staircase to Myself
On Sunday morning, May 30, I hiked past a sheep pasture strewn with tumbled walls and into Bogle Glen’s groves of coniferous trees. As I passed more leisurely hikers like Jeremy and Janice, I finally caught up to myself.
“Oh, you must be that writer,” Jeremy said nonchalantly. News of that “travel journalist” asking questions at the Drovers Inn the night before had already passed up the multi-national wagon train of hikers ebbing and flowing across the vapourous countryside.
The British couple and I walked side-by-side for a couple of hours, then met up with Gabriella and Michael from Switzerland, who I had not seen since eating bowls of muesli together at the Rowardennan Youth Hostel the previous morning. When Janice, Jeremy and I stopped for our picnic lunch at the remains of St. Fillans Priory, the Swiss couple walked ahead. I forgot to say goodbye. An hour later, Jeremy and Janice detoured at Tyndrum. I never saw them again.
But I didn’t need other people. I was tough and craved the privacy of my own mind. I found solitude by striding ahead and keeping my mouth shut.
On day five, the drover’s road to Glen Coe veered into Rannoch Moor — a massive blanket of scrubby bog, heather and bilberry. Under pristine skies, visibility extended to 10 miles. I played a game, trying to match the shape of a shadow on a distant hill to the cloud that cast it. I thought how words, cameras and watercolours never adequately capture how, over great expanses, greens and grays morph into purples and milky blues.
My fellow hikers’ day ended at the Kinghouse Hotel, but I had another eight miles to go to Kinlochleven. My feet were on auto-pilot. My mind slid and shifted. No trees, no closed spaces, no sound except boot crunching gravel. I forgot who I was. My feet thought for me.
At five o’clock, I ascended the dreaded Devil’s Staircase and had the entire trail — and trial — to myself.
But at the summit I thought of Ian and Donald, the barrister and Pfizer lab scientist from Kent who I’d hiked with from the beginning. At the Glengoyne distillery on day one, we’d downed a dram of whisky at 11:30 am on empty stomachs. By day two, we’d already shared many a pint. I knew they’d have to ascend the Staircase’s on day six — forecast: rain. I wondered what their story would be.
Oh, my fellow travelers! Whatever ever happened to Margaret and Carol, middle-aged ladies who’d already tackled the Inca Trail? The Kiwis Evette and Gareth, the Canadians Meghan and Erin, all working at Kingshouse for the summer? Tanya from Amsterdam? Toni and Jodi from Australia? The mother and son, the lesbian foursome, the couple carrying their baby on their backs?
I even missed Clive and Jim, those old unstoppable blokes. Our paths would never intersect again.
Writing this weeks later, I concluded that loneliness is overrated. I did need other people.
I remembered Janice and Jeremy, just before they turned off the trail. I had been hiking in those brand-new, Mac’s Adventure loaner boots ever since soaking my running shoes (not recommended footwear). Bad idea. Along the banks of the River Cononish, my blisters shredded.
Before I could protest, Janice had my boots off and was inspecting the damage. “Ooh, that’s a bad one,” she said, applying “plasters” to the sore spots that looked like raw pork meat. Total strangers touching my disgusting feet —- now that’s true camaraderie on the trail.
My mind also went back to Chris and Todd, the two Duke University students on summer break I overtook towards the end of day four. Lugging massive packs, Todd struggled with a water jug; Chris had (of all burdens) a Greek bouzouki strapped to his back. Red from sunburn and covered in midge bites, they had been camping out for the last week. They looked miserable.
“Thanks, man,” said the curly-headed Chris, looking over at me.
“For what?” I asked.
“We were getting tired. But you showing up — you gave us a boost.”
Keats was right about Scotland. “I am more comfortable than I could have imagined in such a place,” he wrote on July 18, 1818. “The people are all very kind.”
Our presences dwarfed by Beinn Dorain but encouraged by each other, we forsook those false and hurtful divisions of life: age and youth, poverty and riches, solitude and fatigue. Together, we quickened our pace towards our well-earned bed and tent and pint, all three of us — four, if you count Keats.
Ethan Gilsdorf last contributed to the Grapevine to report about cycling through the mountains of France. He writes for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, among other papers.