August 17th was my last day of walking on the West Highland Way, which was exactly 4 months ago. 4 months! This is absolutely the most delayed post I’ve ever written.
I was just looking through my photos from those last days in Scotland, and in some ways I feel like I was just there, but in other ways… it feels like those memories are from another life. This tends to happen, especially in these cold, winter months (I’m currently sitting on my couch under a heavy comforter listening to the ping of freezing rain against my window). In the Scotland photos I’m tan, my hair is lighter, the world is green and the sun is shining brightly. Everything is warm and light and free and fun- very much the opposite of the time of life I’m in now.
There are moments of fun in these months- indeed- so maybe it’s just this transition to winter that always gets me a bit down. These are short, dark days- we are in the very shortest days of the year right now, and I can feel it. The cold has blown in too, and I can feel myself resisting all of this. I still want to be outside in a t-shirt, hiking loops on the trails in my park, driving with my windows down, making smoothies and planning camping trips.
I’ve resisted settling into these dark, cold winter days, because this time of the year, for me, is synonymous with work and discipline and routine. The end of my summer travels was so much fun, and I found that for months afterwards I wanted to hold onto that feeling. I still want to hold on to that feeling, but just as equally, I want to begin again with my writing.
So here’s what happening, over here: I’m missing summertime. I’m dreaming of travel plans for 2017. But more than either of those, I’m finally beginning to accept that winter is here. And that it’s time to write- to really write again.
And what better place to begin than at the end? My last day on the West Highland Way was, by all accounts, the ‘easy’ one. It was the shortest distance of the trip, clocking in at only 24 kilometers (which, following days of 30, 32, 31, 35km, felt like a breeze).
But maybe I was a bit too confident heading into the day: I felt so relaxed that I didn’t prepare as I normally would, by meticulously examining my guidebook and planning stops and lunch breaks. So, an hour into my walk, when I stopped for a moment and paged through the guidebook to see where I was, I realized that I wouldn’t be passing through any villages, the path wouldn’t take me by an Inn, there would be absolutely no places to buy food.
Whoops. I’d eaten another hearty breakfast that morning- a huge bowl of porridge, two slices of toast, a container of yogurt and a lot of coffee- so I didn’t need to worry about my food situation right away. I was totally stocked up on water and I had some leftover snacks tucked away in my pack so I just kept walking, because, well, it was the only thing I could do.
It was another stunning day: bright sunlight and a clear blue sky. The walk started with a steady climb out of Kinlochleven, but soon the path leveled out and the walking was mostly even, with only short ascents and descents for the rest of the way.
I walked steadily for hours, stopping a few times for short breaks, or to examine old stone ruins, or to take off my socks and air out my feet. After about 20km (and a mere 4km from the end of the day), I was too hungry to continue so I hopped up on a large rock and dug through my bag, searching for any bit of food that I could find. I had one apple, three Oreo cookies, a small and rather stale packaged croissant, and half a bag of dried cherries that I’d bought in Santiago. I ate it all, and then continued walking.
Even though the walking that day wasn’t too difficult, I felt ready to be done. I walked swiftly through the last kilometers, ready to find my hostel, ready to take a shower, ready to sit down for a large meal. 100 miles (many of them difficult) in 5 days wasn’t easy. I don’t wish that I’d done it any other way: I loved the challenge, I loved those really long days of walking, I loved how strong I felt.
But I was also tired. And I was at the very end of my trip- not just the Scotland part, but the whole thing: Bath, London, Paris, Labastide, Madrid, Leon, the San Salvador, the Norte, Santiago, Glasgow, the West Highland Way. It was almost time to go home, and I was ready for the comforts of my apartment, the ease of daily life, the familiar faces of my family and friends.
My hostel wasn’t technically at the very end of the West Highland Way- it was in Glen Nevis, a small hamlet in open countryside, about a 45-minute walk from Fort William. The official end of the West Highland Way used to be in Glen Nevis- just off the side of the road by a round-about (and there is still a sign to mark this), but in recent years the “end” was moved into Fort William, so walkers would have to pass directly through the bustling commerce and tourist shops of the main street in town.
In any case, when I arrived at my hostel, I felt as though I had arrived at the end. The next day I would walk into Fort William but for now I was happy to find my bunk, wash my clothes, and eat a good meal. I was happy that I’d decided to stay in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel- it sits directly across from the entrance to the path that leads up Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The hostel building was old and quirky but the rooms were clean, the bunks seemed new, and I found a private bathroom down one of the hallways that had a lock on the door and a pristine shower.
This was the first time that I had to share sleeping quarters with other people on the West Highland Way, but I found the people staying in the hostel to be an interesting mix. After eating dinner at restaurant down the road, I came back to the hostel and settled into the lounge area, to try to do some writing. I only got a few sentences in when Tony, a wiry Londoner in his 50’s, began talking to me. He was in Glen Nevis with a few of his buddies- his friends were taking on the challenge of climbing three mountains in 24-hours and Tony explained that they were currently climbing to the top of Ben Nevis. “I’m their driver,” he explained. “See this radio here? They’ll signal me when they get to the top, and then I’ve got to be ready with the car as soon as they descend. Then we drive off to the next one.”
While he waited, he made me a cup of tea, saying that I had to have it prepared in the proper, British way (with cream and lots of sugar). Sitting with us in the lounge was a Norwegian man who was trying to convince me to climb Ben Nevis the next day (a lot of people staying at the hostel were there to climb the mountain), and an American woman who was tired of driving on the “crazy Scottish roads”.
This felt like the most I’d spoken to anyone in days, and it was nice to be surrounded by friendly people. But, strangely, I was the only one there who had walked the West Highland Way. This cinched it- most people on the West Highland Way were campers. If I were to do it again (and be guaranteed to have stunning weather), I would love to try camping. But as it is, having a roof over my head and a mattress to sleep on is still a very nice luxury at the end of the day.
My original plan had been to walk the West Highland Way in six days. I’d needed to change that because of availability of places to stay along the way, so I cut the walk down to 5 days. This left me an extra day in Glen Nevis/Fort William, and before beginning the walk I thought that I might like to climb Ben Nevis. But sitting in my hostel that night, sipping my sweet tea and listening to tales from the other travelers, I knew that I was done. My body was tired. I could summit that mountain another time- and besides, I hadn’t come to Scotland to climb a mountain. I’d come to walk the West Highland Way, and I’d done a good job of it.
Tony’s radio buzzed and he leaped into action. Before running out the door he raced over and gave me a big hug. The Norwegian man asked if he could have my walking stick. An American girl from Arizona asked what the West Highland Way had been like. I smiled at her. “It was an adventure,” I said.