I think I knew within a few minutes of setting off on the West Highland Way that I’d made the right decision. When I’d been trying to figure out my summer plans, I had wanted to do it all: another writer’s retreat in France, another return to the Camino and to Spain, AND I wanted to do something new. A trek in a different place. But in the middle of my travels, and especially when I got sick, I wondered why I had decided to tack on a trip to Scotland. It felt like a bit too much.
That changed the instant I got off the train in Milngavie and made my way to the start of the West Highland Way. My shoes were laced tight, my pack was loaded up, my hand felt a little empty without a walking stick but otherwise I felt ready to walk. And I was so excited to be walking in a new place.
The beginning of the WHW is about 10 miles past the center of Glasgow, in the suburban village of Milngavie (there were a lot of town names I had trouble pronouncing, but this is perhaps the most perplexing: “mullguy”. Sounds nothing like it looks). It’s possible to start walking in Glasgow, and my guidebook had a good map detailing the way; maybe if I ever walk the trail again I’ll do this, but because I was short on time I did what most people do, and took the 30-minute train ride to the official starting point.
It was past 8:30am but only a few people were milling about the main street of the village. Some shops were just opening and I looked around curiously. The skies were gray, there were dark patches on the pavement from the recent rain. I approached the obelisk that marks the beginning of the trail, and noticed a girl in hiking gear lingering nearby as well. We smiled shyly at each other, then offered to take each others’ photos. We continued to chat for a moment or two, then I waved to her as she set off down the trail.
I wanted to put a little distance between us, so I waited around at the start of the trail for awhile, reading the informational posts, retying my shoes. August is the busiest time for the West Highland Way, but I still wasn’t sure what that meant. Would the trail be crowded? Did I have to worry about not being able to feel like I was walking on my own? I already had my beds reserved for each night of the walk, but would the places where I was staying feel cramped, overrun?
I’d stalled long enough, and finally, I started walking. I walked 19 miles that first day- about 30km- and by the end of the day, I felt really, really happy. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt such happiness, but I’ll try to explain it as best as I can. Aside from a few bursts of sunlight, the day was overcast and windy and cool. Ideal walking conditions for many, but I always prefer blue sky and at least some sun. I had brief, friendly interactions with about a dozen people, but no real conversations or connections. There was a large hill/small mountain (still don’t really know the difference) to climb at the very end of the day and it wore me out. By the time I got to where I was staying- a private room at the Oak Tree Inn- I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in bed and watch the Olympics (which, for awhile, I did).
All of this, and I felt nothing but happy. Happy, and excited for the next four days. I think it might go back to that very initial feeling of wonder and awe that I had at the beginning of my trip, when I was settled in my bunk in Bath, England. Just 24-hours before I had been in my apartment, and suddenly I had gotten myself to a very different place. Just like that; it’s easy, and yet, it also requires something of us.
I’d made it through my first day on the West Highland Way, and I guess it gave me the feeling that I could walk anywhere that I want in this world. Scotland is definitely a much easier country to navigate than many others, but the thing is, I think I’d forgotten what it was like to be somewhere completely new. Scotland reminded me of all the exploring I still want to do, and it made me feel like it was all still possible. If I want to walk around the world, I probably can. I just have to decide to do it. If I needed more proof of how much I love this thing- walking alone for great distances- then I got it on the West Highland Way. All I really need is my pack and a good pair of shoes and a walking stick. To be feeling healthy. Some good coffee in the morning, a warm meal at night. It’s a pretty simple recipe for happiness.
The scenery for most of the first day was okay; technically, the beginning of the walk was considered to still be in the suburbs of a large city (though the path was tucked away in parks and woodland), but very quickly it moves into the countryside. For the first half of the day I was crisscrossing with a large family who were out for a day hike- kids and parents and grandparents- and at some point the girl from the obelisk in Milngavie had joined up with them. After a few miles I walked under a drizzle, soon the drizzle turned into a steady rain. I pulled on my rain jacket and when I passed one of the members of the large family, the grandfather, maybe, he turned towards me and opened his arms out wide. Then he turned his face up to the sky, raindrops splashing on his cheeks. “It’s wonderful to be alive, isn’t it?”
The rain only lasted for about 10 minutes, and that was the only rain I walked under on the 5-day hike. Supposedly the weather in the Highlands is fickle and unpredictable; locals told me that it could be pouring rain in one area, while 5 minutes down the road it might be dry. On Day 3 of the walk I was ordering a sandwich at a cafe and the woman behind the counter shook her head in sympathy when I told her I was hiking. “I’m sorry about the weather,” she said. I only looked at her in surprise. “But the weather’s been great!” I replied. “No rain at all!”
The trail wasn’t too crowded on the first day, but that was probably the most crowded I saw it for my entire walk. There seemed to be a lot of people out for a day-hike, but there were several small groups of thru-hikers as well, loaded down with large packs and muddy boots. I said hello to everyone I passed, but it seemed as though other hikers were taken aback by my friendliness. Not all of them, but enough of them. That seemed to be the trend during my hike- I’d try to make eye contact and smile and a good number of people didn’t even really look in my direction, and if they did, they smiled lightly and just kept walking. Many hikers were in pairs or groups, and a lot were camping. It felt like everyone was doing their own thing, which is a very different experience from the Camino. Different, but it wasn’t bad. It almost felt easier to walk my own walk and stay alone and independent when I knew that the chance at community wouldn’t be as easy to find.
But while the other thru-hikers seemed to be in their own worlds, the locals were beyond friendly. I suppose that’s the case in some parts of Spain too, as I walked the Camino, but the difference there is that I couldn’t speak Spanish and communicate with them. But in Scotland? On some parts of the walk, it seemed as though I was getting stopped every 30 minutes or so, by someone who wanted to say hi. That was it! They just wanted to know how things were going- no one exclaimed over my being alone, no one warned me about the hard days ahead. They asked where I was headed to that day, and where I was from- often there was a quick comment about Trump and the upcoming election when they heard that I was American- but mostly it seemed that the locals just wanted to share their love of the Highlands. And I think they wanted to make sure that I was enjoying it too. They seemed pleased when my face would light up, when I talked about how great the weather was, how beautiful the scenery, how much I was enjoying myself.
About 10 miles into the walk I met a man coming in the opposite direction; he was from somewhere in northern Scotland and had walked the West Highland Way dozens of times. We talked for at least 20 minutes, as he told me about the best times of the year to walk, his favorite sections of the trail. He asked about the towns I was staying in, and told me that doing the walk in 5 days would be fine. “Let me see your pack,” he said. When he saw that it wasn’t too big, he nodded. “5 days won’t be too hard, don’t worry.”
The highlight of the day might have been coming across my first “Honesty Box”. There were several of these set up along the West Highland Way: tables full of bottled water, baskets filled with candy bars, and in this first instance, a large cooler filled with ice cream and popsicles. A sign showed the price of each item and there was always a lock-box to drop some coins into. But ice cream in the middle of a vast and empty countryside! (Well, there was a tiny village with a few buildings, but I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere). What a special treat.
20-miles was a big first day, and I had equally- and longer- days ahead. Most of the walk had been fairly flat and not difficult, but the day ended with a winding trail up the side of a small mountain called Conic Hill. The trail was steep, and my legs hurt. Up and up and up, and as I climbed the wind grew stronger, the air cooler. When I walked I worked up a sweat, but as soon as I stopped for a break I began to shiver. Dark clouds swirled around the sky and as I approached the top of the climb I squinted out towards the horizon. I was at the southern edge of Loch Lomond, the largest area of fresh water in Britain. From where I was standing, I was at the start of a 23-mile path that would wind its way along the edge of the lake; but that would be tomorrow’s walk.
For now, I just had to follow the steep descent down the hill and into the town of Balmaha, my destination for the night.
I felt like I stumbled into town with aching feet, heavy legs, my hair in tangles. But I was looking forward to my bed for the night; because I booked rather late, the cheaper beds in the bunkhouse were all taken, so I had to reserve a room at the Inn. It was an expensive night- the most expensive of the summer- but I welcomed the luxury with open arms.
I checked into my tiny room with the cleanest, shiniest bathroom I’d ever seen, and the first thing I noticed was a tray filled with mugs and tea bags and several packet of shortbread cookies. So I took a shower and then heated some water and crawled under the heavy comforter to eat some cookies, drink some tea, and watch some of the semi-final men’s Olympic tennis match. I didn’t want to move from the bed, and I only left for a quick trip over to the Inn’s restaurant for dinner (fish and chips and a tall pint of beer), and then I returned to bed for more tea, more cookies, more Olympics.
A good first day on the West Highland Way. I knew that the days ahead would be more difficult, but finally, my excitement outweighed my nervousness. I couldn’t wait to see what would be next.