“This is the loch that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends…”
17 miles into the day’s hike, I found myself repeatedly singing this line as I stepped up and down over large rocks, sloshed through mud, ducked under low-hanging tree branches. Every time the trail bent around a curve or the trees opened up I would look ahead anxiously, hoping to see something other than the gray, dim water of Loch Lomond. Instead, I saw the same views I had been seeing for the past 10 hours.
Before I set off that morning, I was aware that the day’s walk would have me following the shoreline of Loch Lomond for nearly it’s entire length- all 23 miles. I paged through my guidebook as I ate breakfast in the restaurant of The Oak Tree Inn. A giant spread was laid out before me: cereals and muesli, yogurts and toast and juice. Coffee or tea, eggs and grilled sausage and tomatoes and mushrooms and baked beans and haggis. I took a little of nearly everything and ate to my heart’s content, pleased and surprised to discover that I quite liked haggis (it’s a savoury pudding made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, all of it minced and mixed with onions and suet and other spices, packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. This sounds absolutely disgusting and to be honest I didn’t really know exactly what it was when I ate it- I only had a very vague idea so I didn’t think too hard about what I was eating. And I found it to be delicious).
I set out for my walk with a full stomach and an easy feeling about the trail ahead. My guidebook showed the elevation of the day to be mostly flat, and there would be one split in the trail with an option for an easier route that I planned to take. All in all, it looked to be a straightforward and uncomplicated day.
And for the first part of the day, I found this to be true: the path hugged the shoreline of the loch and treated me to gentle, misty views of fog hovering just about the water. Every once in awhile I passed a few people on the trail, many of them walking in the opposite direction. But mostly my walk was quiet and peaceful, the trail a bed of dirt and small rocks that wasn’t too difficult to walk over.
After a few hours I stopped at a bar for a cappuccino, served to me in a large mug with a gingerbread cookie on the side. I took my drink outside to sit at a picnic table at the back of the property, just as the clouds parted long enough to throw some sunlight onto the yard. I sat in a pool of the warm light, sipping my creamy drink, and thinking about how nice of a day this was shaping up to be. A woman and her grandson stopped by my table to chat- they were on holiday and were curious about the walk I was doing.
I smiled to myself as I walked away, prepared to continue walking along the loch. My plan was to stop for lunch at the Inversnaid Hotel, the only restaurant I would pass for the rest of the day’s hike. I figured it would take me another 3 or 4 hours to reach it, but oh how wrong I was.
I’m not sure when I figured out that the path I was on was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Sometime after the coffee stop, the path began to get a bit tricky- I had to pay close attention to my footing given all the rocks and pits of mud that I had to navigate. I passed the point where the trail split, and this was probably my mistake. Instead of taking the higher, easier route that I’d planned to, I stayed on the lower path that continued to hug the shoreline. Here’s what my guidebook had to say about the lower route: “a small path which forges a tortuous route clinging as close to the shore as it dares. Many short, steep climbs, fallen trees and rocky sections make the going slow and arduous”.
So why in the world did I take this path when it wasn’t in my original plans? First of all, the split wasn’t exactly clear. There was a spot where I could continue on the path that I had been on, or follow a different path slightly higher. But at this point the signposts only indicated that the West Highland Way continued on the lower path. I’m still pretty sure that this was the split my guidebook described, and I knew it at the time, too, and yet I stayed on the lower path. I think it’s because after three years of walking the Camino, I’ve been trained to follow the arrows. Always follow the arrows. If there had been a sign indicating that the West Highland Way also followed the higher and easier track, I’m sure I would have taken it. But instead I chose to just keep following those arrows (or, in this case, the thistles), even though I knew that the low path could be quite difficult.
And it was. It wasn’t quite as bad as what the guidebook promises, and I think the most difficult sections were probably helped out by the addition of wooden bridges and stairs. But even with these structures, the walk was tough. My favorite kind of walking is the mindless sort- where I can just cruise along and let my mind wander. But the walking on this second day of the West Highland Way? I had to pay attention to nearly every step I took. Sometimes I had to stop and look hard at the trail and figure out where I should place my feet. My steps were measured and careful and muddy. And despite the “flat” elevation shown to me on maps in my guidebook, I had to step up and down over rocks so many times that my knees were soon begging me to stop. In fact, at the end of the day when I checked the health app on my phone, I discovered that I “climbed” more sets of “stairs” on that day than on any other day that summer. More climbing than in the mountains in southern France, more climbing than on the San Salvador, more climbing than on the days ahead on the West Highland Way. 20 miles of constant up and down over rocks made what I thought would be a rather easy day into maybe the most difficult of the summer.
So not only was the walk exhausting, but it took a long, long time. Because I had to be so careful, I was moving so much more slowly than I usually do when I hike. I figured I would be having lunch around 2:00 at the latest, but the hour came and went and I kept trying to peer through the thick cover of trees to search for the Inn somewhere in the distance, but I only continued to see nothing. Nothing but more gray water, more green trees, more sharp rocks. I stopped for a break and checked my guidebook and read that the kitchen of the Inn would close at 4:00 and I checked the time again and worried that I wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to pick up my pace and sometimes I could walk quickly for a few steps but inevitably I would have to slow down as I was greeted with a muddy pit or a pile of rocks.
Finally, I made it to the Inversnaid Hotel. It was after 4:00 and I tried to keep my expectations low, figuring that at least I could order something to drink and take off my shoes and rest my feet. I dropped my bag off in a side room where hikers could keep their things, and changed out of my muddy shoes, then went off to find the bar. To my great luck, the kitchen was opened until 4:30 so I ordered a giant sandwich and a mound of fries and an icy coke.
I wanted to stay there forever. Or at least check into a room and not have to do any more walking for the rest of the day. I had another 6 1/2 miles to go and I guessed that much of it would be along the same sort of path that I had been tediously and carefully picking my way through for hours. It was just after 5 when I left the Inn; on just about any Camino day in my last three years of walking, I would have been long settled into my albergue, showered and cleaned, and set up at a bar with a glass of wine and my journal.
“The West Highland Way isn’t the Camino,” I told myself as I set off again. The next few hours continued to be somewhat challenging, but I felt more relaxed. I’d eaten plenty of food and had renewed energy, plus I knew that I could take as long as I needed to. I had a bed reserved in a cabin at Beinglas Farm Campsite, and the sun didn’t set until after 9pm. No one was waiting for me, and there wouldn’t be much to do once I arrived in Inverarnan, other than shower and have dinner.
So I took my time and amused myself by singing silly songs, and eventually, the path moved away from the shore of the loch and opened up to some new views.
I finally hobbled into Beinglas Farm Campsite around 8:00pm. There was a pub on the grounds of the campsite and I checked in there. The guy behind the bar handed me a key to a small cabin that I had reserved, saying, “It’s all yours.”
“All mine?” I responded. I’d only reserved a bed and figured that I would be sharing with others, but this was another reminder that the West Highland Way wasn’t the Camino. Turns out that reserving a cabin means you have it all to yourself. Maybe. I’m actually still not sure how it works- when I emailed my reservation I asked for a bed in a shared cabin, and then I paid 15 pounds- certainly not the 40 pounds I should have paid to have it all to myself. Maybe no one wanted to share with me?
The cabin was basic- really basic- but it was all I needed. A mattress to sleep on, a roof over my head, and even a little heater that kept the room nice and toasty. I showered and then headed back to the pub, where I ordered a light dinner and drank a glass of wine. The pub was filled, and I noticed one or two other people on their own but mostly people were in pairs, or small groups.
But I found that I didn’t mind that I was alone, in fact, it was adding to the adventure of the whole thing- just me and my pack and my stick (oh yeah, I found a new one earlier that morning!), out in the great wild Highlands of Scotland. Bring on Day 3!