A walk across the Scottish Highlands
Sunday, March 13, 2011
The stone obelisk and huge banner that marked the start of the trail would have been obvious on their own, but the dozens of backpackers surrounding them made them impossible to miss. I'd been told that the West Highland Way was the world's most popular hiking trail. And suddenly, I believed it.
I'd set out to walk the 169 miles from the suburbs of Glasgow to the city of Inverness, across the West Highlands of Scotland. With two of the biggest lakes and some of the wildest country in Europe, it was a hike that seemed right for someone with two or three weeks to spend on the trail.
My route might have been long, but it was clearly marked and well documented. Starting in suburban Milngavie, I would walk the West Highland Way 96 miles to the town of Fort William. There, I'd pick up the Great Glen Way for the final 73 miles to Inverness. I planned to cover 10 to 12 miles a day.
The first mile was a paved path with streetlights; you could follow it night or day, fair weather or foul. Soon, though, the streetlights stopped, the pavement became gravel, and then the gravel became dirt. It was the same for trail markers; the first was that stone obelisk. But a few miles farther on, the markers became fewer, and as the afternoon rolled by, they pretty much faded to small, stylized arrows on wooden posts. It wasn't a problem, though. All I really needed to do was to follow the bootprints. There were seemingly hundreds of them.
Though the West Highland Way is a footpath, it's not always a wilderness trail. In fact, my first stop was the Glencoe Distillery. Entering the crowded tasting room with my backpack, I was given a free shot of whisky. And later in the day - after miles of walking through pastures filled with grazing livestock - I had a slice of chocolate cake at a trail-side tea shop.
On stretches like these, you don't just barge across fields and through herds of animals; instead, you have to open and shut gates and follow the marked and well-trod way across whatever landscape it leads you through.
This British walking is as addictive as crack cocaine: the cool, soothing air; stops at rural pubs and tea shops; hostels filled with backpack-bearing hikers; B&B rooms with a candy bar left as a gift for you; and footpaths that bring you in close touch with mountains, lakes, fields and villages. Walking in Great Britain always has an upside; a rainy day on a Scottish trail is better than a sunny day at your desk. You don't have to camp (although many people do), so you don't have to lug around any camping gear. And if you're still lugging too much, popular trails like these have bag-carrying services that will move your pack from place to place for you.
For the first night, I'd reserved a room at a bed-and-breakfast inn near the town of Drymen. It was classically British: clean, with a hot shower and, on top of the dresser, my own private kettle with tea bags, instant hot chocolate and milk. Breakfast the next morning was the "full Scottish," with eggs, black pudding, potato scone, cooked tomato and toast. It was so huge that it nearly put me right back to sleep.
After another day of agriculture, pastures full of sheep, managed tree farms and fields of heather, the trail reached Loch Lomond, hugging the lake's shore for more than 20 miles. Scrambling over rocks and roots, spending one night in a hostel bunk and another in a luxury hotel (with a plastic tray in my room for muddy boots), I made my way past Britain's largest lake and was soon climbing into the mountains and wishing that the trail would make up its mind about how challenging it was going to be.
Sometimes, it would be level and well graded for a mile or two, then shoot almost straight up. Or maybe it would run through fields of grazing animals, then suddenly enter a forest. A mile of gravel could easily become mud, and there were those moments when you'd think that somebody had artfully surfaced the footway with manure.
I was never alone on the trail. Hikers from every corner of the world were on it with me, and by the end of the first week, I'd come to know quite a few of them. Margret, an Australian doctor, was impeccably fit and had hiked all over the world, while two Dutch sailors with cheap gear and no preparation managed to keep up, offering explanations such as, "We don't need water bottles, we take all our hydration in the form of beer in the evenings." This, of course, horrified the doctor.