Tuesday, September 30, 2008

West Highland Way - Rannoch Moor

Tyndrum to King’s House

The next morning I woke up to a stop in the rain. None of my clothes had dried however, and so I put them in the dryer before I left. There is something amazing about clothes right out of a tumble dryer. I guess it’s because I’ve gotten so used to hanging up clothes to dry. On my way out of town I stopped for food at the last market for 28 miles. With three tins of sardines, tuna, dried pasta, cheese, and more chocolate bars I was ready to head out. I also bought some waterproof over trousers.

Tyndrum marks the beginning of the Rannoch moor. By some it might be considered bleak, boggy grass, heather, hills, and little stream cut across the land. I thought it was absolutely beautiful, and kept having to turn around and look in all directions as I walked. As you go over a small hill, the view always changes. It is very empty though. Walking through I had this feeling of complete insignificance, and at the same time of great power. I had already walked over 50 miles, and was carrying everything on my back. I could do anything. And yet, in the cosmic scheme of things, I am tiny. Maybe this feeling was helped by the fact that I’ve been reading Sophie’s World along the way.

From Tyndrum northward, the way mostly follows an old military road, making it much easier walking than the banks of Loch Lomond. The seven mile walk to Bridge of Orchy was one of the easiest sections of the way I think. It was mostly flat, and mostly not raining. I got there much faster than I expected. The first thing you see when you get to Bridge of Orchy is the train station, followed by the town, and last, the bridge. I guess before they built the bridge, everyone had to go miles around, because people weren’t able to ford the river, and building the bridge made the route over the moor much faster. The village is very small and cute, but they are selling the primary school. I wonder where the kids will go to school now.

Just after I left Bridge of Orchy, the weather took a turn for the worse. It’s only two miles to Inveroran, but it seemed as long as the previous seven miles. The path is basically up over a line of hills, and then down the other side. I think the view at the top could have been amazing, but by the time that I got there, I was completely enclosed in fog. I sat at the top, on the cairn, needing a break, but freezing and soaking wet. I think it was sheer will power that got me down to the inn at Inveroran.

Just past the inn is a grassy spot next to a bridge – a free camping spot. When I arrived the Germans from the night before were already there, as was the group with the dogs. Everyone tried to get their tents up as quickly as possible, and then we sat in the wind and rain and cooked dinner. I love my waterproof trousers!! On the other hand, my raincoat had long before soaked through, and wasn’t doing much good. Eating the heaviest things first, I had rice and baked beans.

And then we all went back to the inn to sit in the warm and the dry and drink. The Germans had a plan to try all the whisky on the list. Sarah (the American with the Germans) and I taught them how to play the game bullshit, which was pretty funny. The dog walkers gave their dogs corona. And by the time we left the rain had mostly stopped and our things were drier.

The next morning the rain held off until I got my tent down, but then started off again. I was cold, my raincoat was still wet, and I was grumpy. I was going to do the eight mile hike to king’s house and it was going to rain the whole way and everything was wet, and it was gray.

There was a break in the rain, and I sat down near some trees hoping that they would block some of the wind. No good. By the time I finished my sardine and cheese sandwiches (mmm) I was freezing. Thank goodness for chocolate bars. I averaged one a day on the trail.

But then, as the rain continued, the sun came out behind my back, and I saw the most beautiful and perfect rainbow of my life, just in front of me. And soon it was a double rainbow. And I couldn’t help it. All the grumpiness vanished. And then there was the sunshine on my back. I just wanted to jump up and down and smile.

That rainbow kept me going for the next couple hours. And then in the distance there was another rainbow. And then another. And another. And as I once again got to the top of a pass and started down, I could see my destination in front of me, bathed in sunlight. The king’s house hotel was actually a bit farther on than I thought, and the last twenty minutes of my journey were also accompanied by a rainbow, but this time without the rain. And every time there was a rainbow, I would have to look at it every few minutes, to see how it changed as I walked.

The king’s house is a famous hotel, and is especially popular with climbers. A river goes past the king’s house, and out back, next to the river is free camping. Among clouds of midgies I set up my tent, and then headed into the climbers bar to read my book, drink tea, and charge my phone and camera battery. The chairs inside the bar were absolutely amazing.

Returning to the outside I cooked my oh so exciting dinner of pasta ‘n sauce (dried and all in one packet, perfect for backpacking) mixed with tuna and walked around the whole time to avoid the midgies. Back in the bar I started talking with two guys that were planning to climb one of the nearby mountains the next day. According to them, all of the greatest climbers have been Scottish, including the first guy to climb Everest. They pointed out all the photos on the wall. And the place has a climber’s bar and another bar because climbers apparently have a tendency to get drunk and rowdy. Although that night the bar was extremely quiet.

I visited the other bar for a bit, and met up with the Germans once again. Also spent some time talking to the South Africans I had met up with on the banks of Loch Lomond. Proving once again, that once you see someone on the trail, eventually you see them again. They were very happy to see me in one piece, as they were worried about me picking my way over rocks in the rain that day. I had some amazing bread pudding in custard, returned to the climbers bar for a bit, and then went back out to my tent to stuff paper in my shoes in an attempt to dry them out and then slept.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

West Highland Way - Loch Lomond

Balmaha to Tyndrum
I awoke the next morning to a rainbow over Loch Lomond. While I was sitting eating breakfast, Andrew and Scott from the day before passed me. Sitting there I had my first real experience with midgies, horrible little bugs that look like gnats, but swarm and bite. And while the bites don’t itch immediately like mosquito bites do, they do end up itching for days. But worse than the physical pain, is the mental pain of having swarms of insects in your face, flying up your nose and into your eyes.

I spent the entire day walking along the shores of Loch Lomond. Not that it’s right by the shore – there’s a lot of up and down and walking over rocks and such. I had decided that I wasn’t going to stop for lunch until I got to Rowerdennan. Not being the fastest walker, I was passed by many people on the trail. And I stopped a lot to for views of the lake and such.

I got to Rowerdennan after two, and sat down by the lake to eat my lunch. Today’s lunch was refried beans and cheese on pita bread with an apple. I then went into the inn, and had some tea and a scone and ran into Andrew. He had decided that he couldn’t manage to finish the trail because his feet were so bad, and so his girlfriend had come to pick him up. The first case of someone walking to fast and not being able to finish. Made me feel better about being slow.

I left Rowerdennan, and started out on the very wide, gravel road that lead to inversnaid. They never paved it though, and so it’s not possible to drive from Rowerdennan to Inversnaid. If you want to go by car you can drive up the other side, and then take a boat over. Apparently at this point the road splits into a high road and a low road, but I never saw signs for the more difficult and scenic low road, and so stayed on the high road

I saw very few people on the path. There was a family walking the dog, but after that it seemed that I was not on the same schedule as anyone else. One of the loveliest places I passed was a bench, overlooking the lake; with one of the most beautiful inscriptions I can remember seeing. There were also waterfalls along the side of the path every 10 meters or so, and I think that I stopped to look at every one of them.

It was beginning to get dark, and I hadn’t found a good place to camp, so with a burst of energy I continued on the smaller trail after the road bit ended, to find a lovely clearing down by the lake. The first thing I did was to take photos as the sun was setting. But as I started to set up my tent, I was besieged by midgies, and in complete madness I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before, I started pulling things frantically out of my pack, searching desperately for the midgie net I had been lent. I can’t describe the feeling of immense relief once I put the net over my head. Unfortunately I got a huge number of bites on my hands, and on the strip of my lower back between the bottom of my shirt and the top of my trousers.

I had a delicious supper of baked beans and rice, and then called Ian to wish him a happy birthday. My baby brother is now 21 and no longer needs me or anyone else to buy him alcohol. I spent a long time just looking into the darkness toward the lake as the light faded, and then went to sleep.

The next day it took me a couple hours to get to inversnaid, and it was getting to be a bit foggy and a little drizzly. Up until this point though, the weather had been fantastic, especially considering I was in the highlands of Scotland. Inversnaid is a posh hotel, with nothing around it except a nice waterfall. Not one of the more exciting places I’ve been, but I did have a cup of tea and a sandwich and charged my phone and camera battery once again before heading off to inverarnnan.

My guide book told me that the first half of the trail from inversnaid to inverarnnan was the hardest bit on the west highland way, because it involved lots of ups and downs over rocky trail. And just as I set off, it started to rain, making the trail very slippery. I guess I must have been on schedule with everyone else at this point, because I kept getting passed by people and then passing them again. One group in particular were all originally from South Africa, but now lived in many places in the world. They were a bit worried about me.

Halfway through the difficult stretch, which was also amazingly beautiful, I sat down to finally eat my lunch, and as I was sitting there, cursing the midgies, a guy came up to say hi and took off his pack to take a break. His name was Daniel, and he was from Tennessee, and hiking the way by himself as well. In fact, he was planning to walk all the way to Inverness. He waited for me to finish, and we started walking together. We finished the difficult bit, and got to the easy bit. We visited the bothy at Duane, a hut that had been renovated, that was a free place to stay for walkers. You were just supposed to make sure that there was wood there for the next visitors to use in making a fire in the fireplace. When we got there, two Scots were just leaving, having made a fire to cook their lunch on. The end of Loch Lomond is an amazing view. There’s a small island at the end called “Island I Vow” or something like that.

I walked with Daniel all the way to Inverarnan. He’s a very cool guy. Did a degree in sustainable development in Glasgow, and after graduating from a Scottish university, you can have a two year work permit, so he’d been working in Glasgow for a bit over a year. After having three and a half days mostly on my own, it was really nice to have someone to talk with.

He had also been lent equipment, but there was a small part missing from his stove, and so he hadn’t been able to use it. After passing stopping a bit in Inverarnan, visiting the shop to get food for dinner, and having some beer, or in Daniel’s case a half pint of Guinness and a banana, we left the campground. While there, I ran into Matt, a guy who had passed me while I was climbing Conic hill. Funny how half the people you see on the way, you see again.

We decided to camp somewhere further on and less than half an hour later it started to pour. After Daniel ran through a bog, we found a camping spot next to a bridge, by an old wall that was falling down. We had an amazing feast, which included quesadillas, scones, macaroni cheese, baked beans and tea. It was also my first experience with waterproof trousers – Daniel lent me some for sitting on the wet ground. And I have to say, waterproof trousers are an amazing thing! For the first time in a long time the clouds cleared, and with no light pollution, the stars were absolutely fantastic. I think I even saw the Milky Way.

The next day I was up and ready before Daniel, so I headed off, and he caught up with me about an hour later. As he caught up to me I ran into a couple of guys that I must have seen on the trail about five times before. They gave me some coffee and I stopped to chat with them. They had been walking together every year for ten years. Sometimes other people joined in, but they were always part of it. This year they were walking the whole way to celebrate 10 years of walking, and also the 50th birthday of one of the guys.

We walked to the turnoff to crianlarich, where we sat, had lunch, and exchanged contact details before Daniel sped off on his way to Inverness. As I watched him walk out of sight, it started to rain, and rained and rained. I was soaked by the time I got to Tyndrum. The walk wasn’t very exciting, but did go past the site of an old lead crushing plant, a site where to this day nothing grows from the poison that was leeched into the soil.

I was thinking to walk on past Tyndrum, but as I got to the campsite I was so cold and so wet that I stopped. I walked into the common cooking hut, to find lots of wet people trying to get warm, and we all instantly bonded. And, inside, I found Matt for the third time. Something about the way brings you back to the same people over and over.

I borrowed shampoo, had an amazing shower, and then discovered that I had been using my stove wrong for the past days. I played Uno with a group of Germans with one American woman, had some cider, and enjoyed being surrounded by a group of people all evening.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

West Higland Way - the beginning

Glasgow to Balmaha

I left Edinburgh a bit late, and arrived in Glasgow about 6. My plan - to wander around and find a hostel, dump my stuff and then explore the city. In my experience there is usually at least one hostel very close to the train or bus station, and I was going to find it. After wandering for two hours, I gave up and asked, and was directed to the Euro Hostel. The Euro Hostel as it turns out, is the typical hostel for capital hopping americans, and all the dorms were full. Not wanting to pay 20 pounds for a place to sleep I decided to head for Milgavnie, where the way officially begins.

At Queen Street station, who should I run into but Karen, a friend from the Fringe. It's a small world to be running into the only person you know in a city at the train station. She offered her floor, but said that it was perhaps better to just camp at the beginning of the way. In scotland there are no laws of trespass, so unless you are damaging a farmer's crops, you can basically camp anywhere.

And so I got on the train to Milgavnie. At 9pm on a Thursday night the town was complely dead, but I could tell that it was pretty posh. The first sign for the way was directly outside the train station, so it was pretty easy to find my way to the beginning. It was dark by this time, but the beginning of the way was on a paved path with street lights, so I set off. A bit later I found the community center for the area, and went inside to ask the old scottish men inside for camping advice. They told me if I went a little further on I would get to a place where it flattened out. And so I walked until where the street lights ended in a park, walked just outside the range of the light, and set up my green tent for the first time, in the dark. Thank goodness for head torches.

The tent isn't very difficult to set up. The poles are color coordinated, and have little tabs on the tent so you put the right pole in the right place. Except some designer wanted it to be pretty, and so there is a purple pole, and then two blue poles, in slightly different shades. Why one of these blue poles couldn't have been neon yellow, or something a bit different I don't know. This design flaw aside, the tent is well engineered for scottish weather. You put up the rain fly first, and then clip the inner tent to it. So if it's pouring you get the rain proof part up first. There's a sort of porch as well, over a third of the tent actually, so that you can stick your pack there and do your cooking, and everything will stay dry. As a two person tent though, it's a bit large for one person.

Anyways, it wasn't raining, and i had no problems in my camping, except being woken up by curious dogs in the morning. I had done my food shopping the night before in Glasgow, but needed an adaptor so I would be able to charge my camera along the way, and so headed back into town. And then when I went to take my first photos, the battery died. So I ended up spending a couple hours reading in a coffee shop while charging my camera and phone. Only at around noon did I get the photos of the beginning monument and set off on my way once more.

Turns out it was a good thing that I went back into town, because I had veered off the way a bit the night before. The beginning of the way is in several parks. As it moves out of the glasgow area, it goes through lots of farmland. This involves opening lots of gates and then closing them again. Lots of cows, sheep, and these overly hairy cows with very long horns. The path was easy, and mostly flat, but getting used to my 40 pound pack took a bit of adjusting. Much of the path was actually an old abandoned railroad. I passed a distillery, and was given lots of advice by various old scottish men.

At some point the trail led out to a paved road. I kept walking, until dusk, when I passed the first campsite, near the village of Drymen. I camped near two belgian girls that I was to see again and again on the trail, as well as two guys that had passed me not once but twice on the trail that day. I had my first go at using the stove, made some pasta and sauce, and fell asleep.

Still trying to adjust from my festival schedule of going to sleep at 5am, I didn't manage to get up until well after 8, to an empty campsite. I discovered the glorious invention of peanut butter on hobnobs, and then set off. I detoured into Drymen, to have a look at the place, as I was told it would be another 70 miles before I saw a town of that size again.

Walking through the woods outside Drymen I met some guys from Edinburgh - Andrew and Scott. Andrew was already walking funny from blisters, and this was their first day. They were using the travel lite service, which transports your bags along the way for you, and so were walking much faster than I was. I walked with them for an hour or so, until the beginning of conic hill, when I decided that I needed some lunch, and had a picnic.

Conic hill is the first major hill of the way, and the path seemed to be doubling as a small stream. Going up was slow, the top was misty, and going down was even slower. A heavy pack isn't so bad going up, but going down, it really messed up my center of balance, making it much easier to fall. So I inched my way down this hill, until I got to some rock stairs that had been built in.

Balmaha is a tiny place, the center of which seems to be the oak tree in, a hotel, returaunt, and bar with a tiny shop next door. It's also the first point on the way which is on Loch Lomond. I met up with Andrew and Scott again, as well as the guys from the night before to have a pint before walking a bit out of the village to camp on a hill above the loch, complete with beautiful sunset.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

leaving Edinburgh

On Sunday I watched the most amazing fireworks I have ever seen, set to music of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing in Princes Street Gardens, compmlete with a firworks waterfall over the side of castle rock. It was celebrating the end of the international theater festival, or really, the people of Edinburgh having their city to themselves again.

After cleaning of flats, and helping to organize stores, I finally left C Venues housing tuesday morning, and still with no plan, went to stay with Richard the first. Richard the first, because he was the first richard that I met in my travels in 2005. The room that was neon pink is now white, and the hall is being redecorated, but other than that his flat remains close to the same. I mentioned that I wanted to do some camping, and he got out a map, and started suggesting places. He suggested Inverie, the most remote pub in scotland, and while the internet provided little information on how to walk there, wikipedia led me to fort williams, and then to the west highland way. And, at that moment, I decided I would walk it.

Richard kindly provided me with a pack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and compass, and last night took me to meet his friends Jim and Sally. Jim has climed all the Munros (mountains) of scotland, and the two of them lent me a map, head torch, and midgie net, as well as giving me lots and lots of advice. This was followed by the best macaroni and cheese ever (with peas, broccoli, capers and olives), cider, and conversation until 2am.

Today I take the bus to Glasgow, and tomorrow morning I will begin this 95 mile, 7 day walk through the highlands of scotland. Hopefully I'll get some sunny days, and it will be my first opportunity to really use this new camera I got before leaving the US.