There is pumpkin bread in the oven, outside it’s pouring rain. Red, wet leaves are everywhere now, they’re blanketing the ground and coating my kitchen window. It’s autumn, maybe the most autumn-est day of the entire season so far. Horror movies run in marathons on TV, tomorrow night is Game 3 of the World Series. The end of October is a great time of year.
And speaking of time, I think it’s about time that I wrote more about Scotland. I can’t believe I’m still writing about this trek- or, more precisely, that it is taking me so long to write about these days. I’m not sure why, but it seems as though the further we move away from the summer, the more difficult it is to remember my long days of walking on the West Highland Way.
I’ve been afraid that I would just stop writing about it altogether, and never finish telling you about my adventure, but that doesn’t feel right. So I’m back at it, and maybe if I’m lucky I can finish telling you about Scotland before we ring in a new year.
We’re on Day 3. And it was a magnificent day. 31 kilometers and I think the walking wasn’t too difficult (See? I can’t remember! Was I tired? Exhausted from the days before? Did the small hills feel like mountains? Or was I gliding along?). All I really remember is that this is the day when I finally felt like I was in the Highlands, or at least the Highlands of my imagination. I’d finally moved away from that lake of epic proportions and was now among rolling hills and green earth. There were cows and sheep, a sky that looked like a painting, crumbling stone walls and an old cemetery.
Aside from the stunning scenery, the highlight of this day might have been my lunch stop. I walked off the trail and went just a bit out of my way to find a little family-run coffee shop that was housed in an old church. One end of the room had a small gift shop full of handmade crafts and the other side had wooden dining tables with tiny vases of fresh flowers. I sat at a corner table and ordered a cafe mocha, a grilled cheese sandwich and a small salad. The service was slow but I didn’t mind; I had nowhere to be and all day to walk and this little café/church was the perfect place for a good, long break.
When I finished I went up to the cash register to pay, and noticed a counter filled with trays of pastries. A hand-written sign said that the pastries were all fresh and homemade, so I picked out a thick slice of lemon drizzle cake, that I asked to have wrapped up.
“That’ll be the perfect snack when you need to get out of your car and stretch your legs,” the woman behind the counter said, handing me my cake.
“Oh I’m not driving,” I replied. “I’m walking the West Highland Way.”
The woman gave me a long look and tilted her head to the side. “Really? You’re looking awfully casual to be on that walk.”
I looked down at myself. What could she have meant? I was wearing my hiking shoes and long green hiking pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. I was dressed like a hiker, at least I thought I was. Maybe West Highland Way hikers didn’t often find their way to this café? Maybe when they did, they looked different?
The woman chatted with me for a few minutes and then I was on my way again, back out into the sunshine and the warm air, up into the hills and past fields of cows. I was energized by my espresso drink, full from my meal, satisfied to have all day to walk in a beautiful place.
I rolled into Bridge of Orchy, my destination, sometime in the late afternoon. Bridge of Orchy is described in my guidebook as a tranquil hamlet nestled in the foothills of two mountains. The village is nothing more than a train station, a hotel, a few houses and I walked all the way through and was headed straight out of town when I realized that I must have passed my lodgings for the night.
I’d reserved a bed in a bunkhouse at the train station. I knew I’d be sleeping at the train station, and yet, when I crossed under the tracks, I walked right by because I couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the hostel was located. But I made my way back, walking up onto the platform and peering through the windows of the long, narrow building that sat between the tracks. I tried a few doorknobs; they were locked. Then I saw an opened door and went inside, to find a crowded and messy room. There were old couches and newspapers and books scattered about, shelves of packaged food and a basket to collect money.
I called out ‘hello’, thinking someone might be in the back room, but the place was deserted. I went back outside, circled the building once more, and then- because I had already walked through the village and hadn’t seen a soul- I sat down on a bench to wait.
As I sat on the bench at the empty train station, eating my lemon drizzle cake, I had the thought that I was waiting for a train that would never come. But after only 5 minutes I heard voices, and then I had one of the stranger encounters of my trip.
Three old men walked up, they each had a bag dangling from a hand- one had a small canvas bag but the other two had large and tattered plastic bags. There were all wearing t-shirts, old jeans, beat up sneakers.
I looked up at them eagerly as they walked by. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know how to check in here?”
They slowly turned to me as if they hadn’t realized I’d been there all along. One of the men spoke. “We’re walkers,” he said.
“Yeah, me too.”
The men all stared at me for a moment, and then they kept walking down the platform. One of them called back, “But we’re walking the West Highland Way.”
Huh. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but maybe it was best not to. A few minutes later another old man walked up, but this one had a set of keys in his fist and came right up to me and asked if my name was Nadine.
“Strange day,” he said to me as he led me into a room with two sets of (three-tiered!!) bunk beds. “Last night we were packed, but tonight there’s hardly anyone. You’ll be the only one in this room.” The three old men were staying in a room further down the platform (and to be honest I was a little relieved), so I found myself, yet again, with a room of my own.
I ate dinner in the bar of the Inn down the road; it was a beautiful white building and my table had a big leather chair that I sank into and the room was warm and cozy. I ordered a hamburger and fries and a couple glasses of wine (and paid three times as much as I would have in Spain but who’s counting?), and while I was eating a man from California came over to talk. When he found out I was hiking he fired dozens of questions at me, not seeming to understand that I wake up in the morning and just start walking. “You don’t have a bike?” he asked. “You don’t take a train?”
He invited me to join him and his friend for some whiskey but the sun had set, the sky was a dark shade of blue and I had a 10-minute walk back up to an empty room in a deserted train station. I politely declined his offer and he walked away, and then a local woman at a table across the room began talking to me. Under the table and at her feet was a big white dog, and she told me that she overheard some of my conversation and wanted to know how my trek was going. She asked how many days it would take me and when I told her 5, her eyebrows shot up in surprise.
But she quickly recovered. “I walked it with my girlfriends,” she said, “And it took us 7 days. But 5 days is fine, my husband did that.”
I told her that I was worried about tomorrow’s walk- it would be another long day and there were two difficult stretches but her reply was instant. “Don’t worry, you can do it. They call it the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ but it’s really not that bad. And just think, all you’re really doing is walking, right? It’s only walking.”
Yes, it’s only walking. Sometimes it’s uphill, sometimes it goes on for hours and hours and hours, sometimes it’s muddy or rocky or smooth or rough, but at the end of the day, it’s only walking.
So I walked myself back up to the train station under the light of a near-full moon, opened the door to my private room and crawled under the covers of my bottom bunk.
It’s only walking, and I love it.