As I boarded the plane to Scotland I experienced a familiar (and incredibly welcome) feeling. I was ‘back’. Not back as in back to Scotland, although I’ve been before and loved it. But ‘back’ as in back out there. Out in the world after spending pretty much the entire summer up to that point at home in the States. And not to take away anything from that, it was great seeing family and friends (see earlier blog ‘Where the Heart Is’), but I could feel myself getting antsy. I wanted to travel again. I wanted to explore. I was looking forward to the next challenge… And what a challenge it would be. Getting in touch with my family roots and trekking around the Scottish Highlands!
As I was a little more focused on fun and less on spirituality/workouts the previous 2 months, I was also pumped to get my body moving again. I had definitely put back on some of the weight I’d shed and I was looking forward to getting back to my healthier lifestyle. It’s one of the things I’ve definitely become more aware of in myself= I still have a lot of work to do in seeking the balance between the 2 Brians. The one that now loves starting his day with yoga and then climbing the nearest mountain, to the one that loves scotch nights and karaoke with friends in the city. I do still struggle with keeping both happy when I’m around my friends and in environments that are more conducive to ‘fun’. So I’m therefore still having to physically remove myself from them AND all potential for cocktail/wine-fueled late nights and morning excuses (e.g. hangovers) for not getting up at 6 and having a healthier/happier day. It’s a work in progress. I think there’s room for both, but I find myself continutously working on my discipline. Until then, I still find it easier to just get out there and away from everyone/everything and spend a little time by myself.
The West Highland Way
I had first heard about the West Highland Way while on the Everest trek. My friends Georgia and Michiel had both done it and given it a great review. It would be ~100 miles over the course of 7 days on a trail that runs from Milngavie to Fort William. It’s a pretty popular trek, thousands of people do it annually… Then again if you consider that there are 3.6 billion people in the world, maybe it’s still a bit of an unknown- I had never heard of it until April. I couldn’t wait.
As per usual, I was more of an ‘idea’ guy here and less of a ‘planner’, so when I finally got around to sorting out the trip, many of the places people stay along the route were already booked (the ones you could find online anyway). So I ended up spending about 8 full hours contacting hotels, hostels, b&bs, campgrounds, etc seeking places to stay in the recommended towns along the route. In the end (and after much outreach), I got everything squared away and was all set to go!
Once again, to say I was excited would be the understatement of the year. I was ready to charge over the highlands like Mel Gibson in Braveheart!
As I mentioned above, most do this in 7 days (though there is also an 8 day itinerary). BUT due to my lack of planning and room at the inns, my trek was set to be completed in 6… According to the plan that I had worked out, most days would be between 15-18 miles. But, in my mind this doesn’t seem all that bad. I’ve been hiking/trekking a ton this year and felt like this wouldn’t be too aggressive- figuring a roughly 3 mile per hour pace, most days would find me on the trail around 7 hours (including breaks/lunch etc). If I left at 730 every day, I’d be done by 3 every day to check in, explore, and rest. (Spoiler alert, I almost never left at 730).
Day One- Milngavie to Drymen (12 miles)
As I sat on the 45 min train from Glasgow to Milngavie, I was mentally preparing for the trek. I had a sort of peaceful excitement running through my body. Like I was prepared, and present… but couldn’t wait for that first step. It was a beautiful day, and after a few pictures of the ‘official beginning’ of the West Highland Way I was off! This day would be spent walking through a bit of forest, through a massive field along an old railway track and then along a road before finally ending up in a town called Drymen. I was in such a great mood! I had lucked out with the weather, I had some good music on (Walter Mitty Spotify playlist of course), and it was all I could do to not start running! I had a huge smile on my face as I was setting off on this new adventure. The day itself was fairly uneventful, I crossed paths with a few other trekkers but for the most part was just alone with my thoughts. After about 5.5 hours I arrived in Drymen to my B&B which was a converted old church! Was super cool! I dropped my backpack (thank God as it was starting to get heavy!) off and then went to check out ‘town’. I first sat in the little park which served as their town square and meditated, then called my Mom to let her know I was ok. I then had a pint at the ‘Oldest Pub in Scotland’ and reflected on my day before calling it a night. Tomorrow was gonna be another long amazing day…
Day Two- Drymen to Inversnaid (18 miles, oops I mean 24 miles!)
As I had breakfast at my B&B, the host asked which delivery service I had used for my pack transport. I had no idea what she was talking about… She then told me that most people elected to just take a day pack on the trek and had a delivery service take their heavy pack/luggage on ahead to their next stop where it would be happily awaiting them after a long day’s walk. At first I wasn’t keen, this was part of the journey right? Carrying what you brought? Even though I had already decided to ship some stuff home from Glasgow, my pack was still 15 kilos. After some contemplation I decided the smart thing to do would be to send ahead some stuff. No sense hurting my back, taking away from my enjoyment of the hike. Thank God. Smartest decision ever, especially given the slight miscalculation I had made on this particular day!
The day started with a walk though a national park and then up and over Conic Hill. I was listening to the audio book of ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ (awesome by the way) so was kinda in a zen sorta zone as I approached the peak. Apparently this s a pretty popular spot as there were lots of people who had hiked up to get a look at the panoramic view of Loch Lomond from the top. From here you can also see the continental separation between the lowlands and the highlands! It was pretty cool. Also seemed like the right place to sit and do my meditation… so I did. The way down the back side was fun! I was almost running, just feeling childlike enthusiasm as I moved ahead on my journey. Listening to the Braveheart Soundtrack no doubt gave me a little extra kick.
Here’s where things get interesting for me today. After a lovely Loch-side lunch, I’d basically be walking alongside Loch Lomond the rest of my day today until I reached Inversnaid. Which is close but no cigar to ‘Inversness’. Never good to confuse names of towns you’re supposedly heading towards. Don’t get me wrong, there was an Inversnaid, it was just much closer than where I needed to be. Net/net… I basically underestimated my walking for the day by 6 miles, adding an extra 2.5 hours to the end of an already long ass day! Ugh. Par for the course though, I always tend to mess up at least one detail… Soooo, by the time I actually arrived to my lodge for the night (also ironically an old church converted to camping/hostel), it was close to dark. Oh yeah, another minor mishap, I accidentally booked my room there for the night before (face palm), luckily they had one bed left otherwise I’d have been out in the cold.
So… what I thought would be an already long 18 mile day was actually 24. I was gassed. Both my Garmin and iPhone recorded over 50,000 steps that day! Thank God I had opted to send my pack ahead…
Day Three- Inversnaid to Tyndrum (17 miles)
After a pretty nice sleep I hopped out of bed the next morning a bit tired, but still excited for the day! My knees however were sore. Not the there were any particularly hard/super steep parts compared to India/Nepal/NZ, but I just overused them the day before. I could tell. Shit. I still had a ways to go… The morning was rainy. Very rainy. And this was meant to be the hardest day of the trek. The first 2 hours were basically a scramble along the Loch over/around boulders, tree roots, muddy hills etc. The weather did not make things any easier- nor were the ‘waterproof’ pants doing their job so I’d spend the day hiking both sore and soaked. I wasn’t in the best of moods this morning and I was having a hard time breaking out of this funk. Then I had a flashback to NZ and sitting in the geothermal river, feeling like the water was baptizing me, giving me life, and then I envisioned this rain doing the same. This was a Prana shower now filling me with energy rather than dampening my spirits. From that moment on I was mentally back on track. I love these little life lessons, they seem to reveal themselves at just the right time. Most the day was uneventful, just a nice long walk- though I accidentally missed the spot where I was supposed to have lunch, so had to make do with a granola bar and apple until dinner. I did pass a cool little Lake which is said to be where Robert the Bruce tossed his sword after a loss in battle with the British. He didn’t want their army to ‘capture’ his sword so he allegedly hurled it into the middle of the water, though it’s never turned up.
When I arrived to my little camping hut I’d booked for Tyndrum I was still pretty wet, I was cold, and my knees were really starting to bother me. As this town had a few ‘nice’ hotels (‘nice’ for 1970s America), I decided I needed a comfy bed and a tub to soak in. SO I dropped all my gear off at the one spot, then treated myself to a nice meal, glass of wine, and a long soak in some Epson Salt at a nearby hotel. A bit of a double expense/waste of money, but well worth it. I slept great and although I was still sore in the morning, it wasn’t as bad as it would’ve been had I stayed in the campground… Time to keep moving.
Day Four- Tyndrum to Ballachulish (18 miles)
I bought a proper rain slicker this morning so I’d stay a little dryer. All the gear that was supposed to be waterproof ended up being much closer to water-resistant so I thought a little extra protection wouldn’t hurt. It was another cool day, rain coming and going, mild with the occasional sun break. Now we were starting to get into more of what I thought the ‘highlands’ would look like. Green, rugged hills similar to NZ’s Lord of the Rings scenery. Today was rad. Though my knees were definitely now messed up, I was still in a good mood. Braveheart once again accompanied my walk and filled my spirit with and old highland warrior-like energy. I could feel the battles that had taken place here. I could see the armies as they charged forward over the hills, across the rivers, and down the valley. It gave me chills…
I was over halfway there now so I think that helped mentally a bit, knowing that every step (though more than a few were painful, especially going downhill) was one step closer to the finish line. The last bit of the day went up and over Rannoch Moor, and even though it was a bit cloudy, still provided an amazing view of Glen Coe. This was why I came. This was where I wanted to be. I arrived at the King’s House Hotel, which is where most people stay on the trek. But… as I booked late I had to veer off the trail and take a taxi 15 minutes to the nearby town of Ballachullish (after a well deserved beer at the hotel bar). Ballachullish was actually a cool little town near the water and I had bitten the bullet and stayed at a proper B&B this evening. I enjoyed a huge burger and glass of fine whisky at the nearby restaurant and then was out for the count. Felt so good to stay in a ‘home’.
Day Five- King’s House to Kinlochleven (8.5 miles)
The host and I chatted a bit the next morning as he served me my ‘Scottish Breakfast’, which was included with the room. This was my first introduction to Black Pudding… I took a bite as not to be rude, but then put the rest in my jacket pocket when he wasn’t looking and ditched it outside as I set off the next morning. Wasn’t my thing…
Grabbed the taxi back to King’s House and continued on. Today was meant to be a shorter day distance-wise, but would traverse the ‘Devil’s Staircase’, which was a pretty steep climb up and over a few decent hills before descending back down into the forest canopy. It was rainy again and the trail seemed to have more people on it than previous days… Though I suppose it’s because this was the only real day I actually got up and out on the trail by 8am (other days saw me sleeping in a bit, taking a little longer to get moving). I was anxious to get to Kinlochleven so I’d have a long afternoon to rest/recuperate. I ended up pushing myself again, through the rain, past the ‘slower’ travelers (who were actually just people spending a little more time enjoying their walk unhurried), and up and over the Staircase. This was a moment of realization for me as I hit the summit and actually finally took a moment to look around- both externally and inwardly. Why was I in such a hurry? My knees weren’t great and yet I kept pushing. Why do I feel this need to finish first? If I see someone or a group ahead of me on the trail do I feel the need to pass them? For sure something to spend a little more time with…
Kinlochleven was a cool little town. Nestled in the woods with a little river running through the middle of it. There was a large ice climbing facility there which doubled as a restaurant, brewery, indoor equipment store, and just a large community space. It seemed like the whole town was in there when I stopped in upon arrival. It was nice to get out of the rain and warm up with a coffee and some lentil soup (odd combo I know). It was here that I also decided that the gear I had just wasn’t cutting it- from my ‘waterproof’ pants, to my day pack, etc so I ended up buying a bunch of new stuff and giving what I had to the local church’s donation bin. Spent money I didn’t plan on spending, but the new gear did make a huge difference. One of these days I’ll get the hang of packing!
My B&B here was also super nice and quaint, complete with a foot massager in the room! It was a bit of a funny/humbling scene for me. I thought I was getting to be so badass, climbing and trekking huge mountains, and here I was in a tiny Scottish town, laying in bed doing some afternoon reading with ice bags on both my knees (the glass of red wine made things better…). I knew I had one day left before completing the trail so I wanted my body to be as fresh as possible. So I iced, and stretched, then iced and stretched some more… I did end up heading out for a meal and a beer as it had been 5 days and I really hadn’t met or talked to anyone. I figured that since there were so many folks on the trail and this was the last suggested stop that there would be a few hikers out and about. But there really wasn’t. There were a few local youth at one place and a few smaller older groups at another. But, I kinda lost my motivation and didn’t end up chatting to anyone. Oh well… One day left.
Day Six- Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)
After a swing by the ice gym (they actually made pretty decent coffee!) I was on my way to Fort William. This day was a mix of sun and rain, wind and calm… much like my emotions. I know that when I’m close to completing a climb (or just near the finish line of anything- a book, this blog, etc) I tend to push myself even harder. I tried to acknowledge this feeling, and let it pass. I didn’t need to run, I didn’t NEED to even finish. What would happen would happen, and I should really just try to be present, just be… And it was just a very nice day of walking. I was on a nice pace, but not hurried… and my mind and my mood synced up in this space as well. I knew I’d most likely arrive at Fort William today, but that didn’t mean I had to be there by any specific time. I made time to stop and look around more, to meditate a few times, to take a few side hikes (one to the ruins of Dùn Deardail- a fort during the iron age!), and also just give myself a little credit, to again rest in the space of where I was in life, how I got here, and the many places I could go after.
As I passed Ben Nevis (the highest peak in the UK) I thought about how it would feel to climb it. Even though my knees were still unhappy with me, this was still the plan. I couldn’t come here and Not climb, right? I passed the Braveheart Car Park, where the cast and crew would hang out while filming one of the scenes nearby- got a little smile from this. And eventually entered Fort William! Similar to Milngavie, the ‘official’ end of the West Highland Way is at the end of the town’s main shopping street. Whereas Milgavie had the gateway to pass through, Fort William featured a statue of an older gentleman sitting on a bench, rubbing his tired feet. So fitting as this is exactly how I felt… I had made it.
Including the side excursions (and one or two wrong turns) I had trekked over 100 miles in 6 days. Thinking back to my life before this break from the ‘real world’ started, there’s no way I would have thought this was possible for me. Or even anything I’d be keen to do! The progression from climbing the Montaña Machu Picchu, to the Peak in Guatemala, to the various day hikes in Cape Town, leading to 32 miles in New Zealand, to 65 miles in Nepal and another multi-day climb at huge elevation in India… to now this. I remember while planning thinking, ’18 miles in a day? That’s totally doable. I can probably do 3 miles per hour. 6 Hours. Not much different from what I’ve been doing… I got this.’ Though a mere 12 months ago if you told me to go outside and just walk for 6-7 hours and cover 18 miles, I’d tell you to lay off the crack pipe. I had much ‘better’ things to do… (which generally turned out to be watching TV, wasting time on social media, trying to motivate to go to the gym but then deciding to meet a friend for a drink instead, etc…)
I’m a different person now. I’ve since continued my love for being outside and climbing things (details to come in future blogs). Now rather than dreading that early morning wake up, or listening to that little voice in my head and letting him talk me into going back to sleep, I wake up before my alarm has even gone off and actually have to remind myself to ease into the day before gearing up and getting going! I love it. I really do.
Along this way I can think of 3 things that really stood out to me:
- Slow Down. I know I want to complete the quest, finish the game, achieve the goal so I can move onto the next adventure. But in doing so I’m sure I missed some of the small details- the ones that really make journeys like this in life special. And in doing do I also physically hurt myself a bit, which then impacted what I was able to do on this adventure and the next. There’s a time and place to push yourself, to test yourself- I still need to learn to distinguish between the two… everything doesn’t have to be a race.
- I’m OK by myself. Growing up I carried a lot of fear in being by myself. I thought it meant that I didn’t have anyone to play with, that wanted to hang out with me, or just liked my company in general. After the fun times with my friends/family back home, I actually enjoyed a bit of the solitude. I’m still getting to know the ‘new me’, hell, I’m still getting to know the old me! Just need to make sure that when you’re allowing yourself a little time and space, that you appreciate the gift you’ve given yourself and use that time to your advantage. To learn, to grow, and to think.
- Just Be. Not the first time I’ve felt this on this journey of mine, but it definitely was a major theme of this week in the Scottish Highlands. Once I began to slow down I felt incredibly connected to the space I was in- all the different landscapes, weather changes, little towns, etc. One moment that I look back upon with a lot of love was walking along a rugged green hillside, with the Braveheart soundtrack playing and just stopping dead in my tracks. I realized that I had the biggest smile on my face and a ton of energy inside me. I could actually see the Highlanders running up and over the hills, yelling, swords in hand, ready to take on an army. I could feel my Scottish ancestry in my heart, in my blood, and in my spirit. I was running with them… I raised both my arms in triumph- eyes closed, head raised- and just spend some time feeling this energy, dwelling in this moment. It felt amazing. I am alive…
Much Love and Bliss,
Just a guy on a hero's journey...