Sunday, December 02, 2007

Walking the West Highland Way - Episode 3: A Lonely Struggle

Many years ago when I was a lot younger and more gullible, my brother and I walked the length (or most of it) of Loch Ness together. Having stayed at the Station Hotel in Inverness the night before, we walked the eight miles to the Loch where we collapsed in a pub at Dores having staggered there under the crushing weight of our rucksacks. There's only so many Mars Bars and cans of Coke a man can carry. A couple or so years before this moment, my brother had bought me a book for Christmas called "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" by F.W.Holiday. This was a serious book about the Loch Ness Monster. I read it. I became entranced by it. I became so entranced by it I felt I had to go and see for myself. After a quick visit to London and buying myself a two-man tent complete with ground sheet and fly sheet at a cost of £24, plus a rucksack, boots, sleeping bag and all the other paraphernalia a yet to be hardened highland hiker like myself would need, I waved goodbye to Mum and Dad and set off on a night sleeper to Haggisland. My brother was so impressed by the photo of the monster I brought back with me, he too decided he too had to see for himself. He wasn't in any way put off by the fact that my photo of Nessie looked suspiciously like an out of focus branch floating in the water. Come to think of it - that’s exactly what it was - and photographed in the shallows of Dores where the pair of us were now parking our arses and downing a pint of finest Scottish ale - maybe.

From Dores we walked up the loch to Foyers. We walked up the loch to Foyers. We strained up the loch to Foyers. We staggered up the loch to Foyers. We crawled into the welcoming doorway of the Foyers Hotel on our hands and knees howling at the moon and foaming at the mouth after a day's torture. The Lady of the hotel - our "Hostess" - remarked to us how beautiful the loch and the surrounding countryside was. This was completely lost on my brother who snapped back that it was bloody boring - or words to that effect. She, being put out and somewhat fazed at his unexpected retort suggested that it wasn't really possible - implying there was something wrong with his judgement - to not appreciate how wonderful the countryside was. This only served to make my brother even more aggressively argumentative to administer the opposite view. Anyway, what - you may wonder am I trying to say in all this? Well, it is this: if you have just been staggering under the weight of a 60Ib rucksack for a whole day, feeling blisters forming on your feet, yours limbs aching to the point of disintegration, the cheeks of your arse rubbed raw by their own rhythmic and sweaty embrace, feeling filthy with dried and re-dried sweat, hungry, thirsty and generally losing the will to live, and if the countryside never seems to change from one end of the loch to the other as in this case, the supposed beauty of this countryside falls on the shallow ground of the demented soul. One could even go on to say that under such circumstances it doesn’t matter whether you are walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea, passing by the Fountains of Paradise, or walking the most spectacular part of the Grand Canyon - its all going to seem bloody boring because all you actually crave and cry out for is to be lying on a bed in a comfortable hotel with someone pouring ice cold beer down your throat while nubile nymphs massage the parts of your body that Heineken cannot reach.

There is a direct parallel here with our second and third days of walking the West Highland Way. You see, despite walking a whole day beside the "Bonny" banks of this heaving body of water called Loch Lomond, the scenery didn't seem to change at all. If it did, it was pretty much lost on us as we were all feeling too knackered to care. Your whole body and soul just seems to cry out to get to the next point where you can finally slip into unconscious oblivion.

After we left the the Inversnaid Bunkhouse, we benefited from "gravity assist" mode as we walked back down the steep hill towards the loch to rejoin the "Way" where we left off the night before after passing the snotty Inversnaid Hotel. I felt it would only be a short walk (I hadn't studied the map properly) before we broke free of the loch and into more interesting countryside. How wrong I was. It just seemed to go on and on and on. Suddenly, we struck out into open countryside with much greenery, hills around, inviting slopes and a feeling of uplifted hope. This was all quickly dashed, when it became apparent that we weren't getting away from the loch that easily, and we were beside it again, and I was starting to feel a numbness of the soul.

Finally, after passing a ferry crossing to Ardlui, we walked through Ardleish and struck out into the countryside north of the loch, with the hillock of Cnap Mor looming ahead to our left. Fortunately, there was lot of vegetative cover if one wanted to take a pee - in case you were wondering! There are a lot of people who walk the Way, and if caught out in the open with "no place to hide", especially if you are a bit desperate, it can get a bit awkward. Even worse if you are a woman. For the purposes of the walk, I was glad I wasn't (a woman that is - although it would be nice to get low car insurance from "Sheila's Wheels").

Trekking ever onwards and northwards, we found ourselves walking along beside the River Falloch with steep slopes of highland mountains to our right. Across the river, we could see the traffic and hear the thundering, droning lorries as they travelled along the A82, the route I usually take to Fort William. Trudging on, we came into Glen Falloch with the hills reaching steeply upwards to either side. Presently, we crossed the busy A82 before striking out along an old military road, now a rubbly track. There must be hundreds of such tracks netted out across Scotland, as we seemed to spend a fair amount of our time on such "highways".

Psychologically, getting to Crianlarich was an important milestone. This particular day of walking was for us the longest, and looking at the map (when we did), everything looked as if it would be plain sailing - or hiking- after reaching this point. Before getting thus far, we came out of the open countryside into dense woodland.

As we walked along, we spotted a man with a Grecian style beard sitting like a little leprechaun on a rock in front of us. We had met this man before at the bunk house. He was carrying a small pack and sported a West Highland Way guide book in his hand. We chatted. He told us walking long trails was his hobby. We later learned that he was a University Lecturer in some very dry subject, political economics or something very like it. Also, his wife's hobby, he told us, was extreme sports. This conjured up an image of him toddling along through forests with his rucksack, while his wife was base jumping off some distant skyscraper or cliff. Whatever she did, it was clear that the pair of them complimented each other at least in their spare time activities. He also seemed to have some magical powers, because we kept catching him up from time to time - he was always ahead of us - and yet we always seemed to be yomping on as fast as we reasonably could and he always seemed to be strolling along with no hurry at all. Either that, or I was so addled with the strain of it all that I was hallucinating.

We came to a sharp fork in the path. To our right it was sign-posted Crianlarich, and to our left it was sign-posted Tyndrum. As Tydrum was where we wanted to go, it seemed a good idea at this stage to take the left hand turn. Our leprechaun friend turned right and headed into Crianlarich where he was bedding down for the night.

Ahead of us lay miles of forest trail. I was suffering a lot with my ankle which was one mass of seething pain. I was also tired. I decided I wasn't going to try walking at anybody else's pace, just my own. Consequently, a gap opened up between myself and my compatriots. The gap got wider. The gap got so wide, I lost sight of them. Was I bovvered?? Trudging ever onwards and cursing every step, I continued through the mocking woodland until the track took me back to the A82 which I crossed and headed out into open countryside crossing the River Fillan and out into Kirkton Farm.

I started to see signs for Wigwams. Was I imagining it? This was supposed to be Scotland, after all, not Cheyenne country. As it happened, I discovered that Kirkton farm is, apart from being a farm, home to Strathfillan Wigwam Village, a holiday centre for people who like staying in small pointy wooden cabins. My heart leaped with joy, not because I was thinking of booking a wooden Wigwam for the night, but at the prospect of there being a cafe where I could lay in a bath of goat's milk while someone gently pours banana milk shake down my parched throat. I also figured that my fellow sufferers would naturally be taking a break at the supposed oasis awaiting my arrival so we could all continue on together like a happy band of brothers. Alas and alacrity - this was not to be. After walking what seemed interminable miles I finally staggered across the camp shop. It was a very small affair with a few chairs outside. I bought myself a can of something cold and wet and a choc bar and sat outside. Apart from the shop assistant, I was completely alone. My compatriots had to have passed this way but had not thought of stopping to wait for me. The idea of regrouping was obviously lost on them, so after consuming my refreshments I arose up from the seat, stiff and aching, my horse-fly bitten and swollen ankle now one mass of throbbing aggravation, and leaned forward across the tarmac to continue my journey to Tyndrum.

Crossing the A82 once more, I continued on my way with the river Fillan flowing to my left and onwards into the forest. I knew that once in the forest, Tyndrum was only short walk. Unfortunately, it didn't seem like that. With the pain in my ankle slowing me down and the overwhelming tiredness I was feeling, every hundred yards of walking felt more like half a mile. I continued on, staring at the very rocky path ahead of me through a red haze when my mobile phone rang. I hadn't been using it to make calls on this leg of the journey because the battery was getting very low, so it seemed best to just have it switched on if anyone wanted to ring me. It was my son. He wanted to know where I was. I said I thought I was probably approaching Tyndrum as I was starting to see buildings and signs of civilization. He asked me to describe what I saw. I described what I saw; he told me where to go - in the sense of directions to the hotel. He told me my brother had only just arrived and he and my nephew had been at the hotel for some time. I followed his directions, and presently crashed into the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, falling to my knees and kissing the entrance to the doorway as I entered. After a meal, I took a shower, collapsed stark naked onto my back on the bed meaning to rest a few minutes before drying myself ready to get into bed. I never got that far. I awoke the next morning in the same position with the towel draped over me as I left it.