Friday, May 23, 2014

249.69 kms: Drumnadrochit-(By BMW)-Abriachan-Inverness

We told Rory (last night's B&B host) of our dilemma about whether to walk the path or the road, the latter being a good four miles shorter. In order to not have the spectacle of our splattered bodies on his nightly television, he offered to take us up to Abriachan. That would make our day of walking on the path, similar in distance to walking on the road without the near-fatality misses. Worked well. I felt very grubby on the cream leather of his BMW.

One kilometre into the walk from our drop-off point was our first stop of the day. Through the forest we came across sign after sign proclaiming things like 'Hot Bovril', 'Beans on Toast', and 'Homebakes'. A couple of people had told me about this place. A sort of 'hippie' coffee shop that you 'just have to stop at'. Three malamute-mixes announced our arrival to our burly host, a malamute-mix in red-haired human form. And the loveliest man you ever did meet. They croft there, which, with the four minutes of google- based research I have done seems to be a sort of legal 'staking a claim' on landlorded property, particularly in Scotland where I believe most of the land is owned by a very few people. We had a lovely chat, a wonderfully strong coffee and funded another tree in the orchard.

Top Left: Drumnadrochit Cemetery
Top Right: Abriachan Eco Campsite and Cafe
Bottom: Windmills in the countryside—I guess it's easier to think they're beautiful when you don't live under one

Rain came and went but it was one of those days when walking was joyous. I'm not sure if I have had the same space for circumspection on this trip. Even though V—— has gone out of his way to allow me the space, I still spend a lot of time worrying about whether he is okay and feeling a second presence. It's okay. It's just different. In some ways I think the last trip was the best trip and this one suffers by comparison. But ultimately the walking is like everything else in life—it's the same thing, day in, day out, minor differences in terrain or weather, but what makes the most difference is the mind you bring to it.

Knowing this is one thing, positively influencing it is another. Because if you can, you make everything you do joyous, or at least bearable. When I am back behind a desk in an air-conditioned box, all too soon, my day there will also be determined by the mind I bring to it. We fight it. We say we don't want to be 'there', or don't like doing 'that'. Everything becomes a wall that we bang our heads, painfully, against. We think about the future—the end of the day of walking, the end of the day of working. We wish our now away. I know this. Knowing doesn't equal doing. I admire people who can be so involved in the moment, who go so into each living minute that, pleasant or not, they enjoy it. They don't over-think things, they simply live. I would seriously like to stop over thinking things. I would like to be a river. Taking life along the natural flow. Water doesn't resist.

Left: Inverness, the final(?) stop
Right: A celebration, the start of a decision-making process

A few beers sometimes help the resistance to fall away—not always for the good—and we decided, once we were safely in the B&B, well oiled with bevies and waiting for dinner, to stop trying to force this river uphill. We decided to stop walking. More so, personally, I have decided to stop walking. I think it is time for something new. (Eek! What?) It doesn't matter that I don't 'finish'. This adventure was always about the journey. If the journey no longer entrances me, the destination becomes meaningless. I am writing this in hindsight, and it has taken me many, many days. For the next two weeks we will stay in just two places: a seaside resort in Scotland, and the urban insanity of London. I will over-think it every day. I will feel guilty, feel I am wasting time. I will miss the walking in some strangely masochistic way. I will feel that somehow I am still trying to force the river. The greatest guilt comes from the fact that this is such a privileged problem to have. I really am lucky. But I do have to find a way to make all this brow-beating work for me when I get back home. There are some other rivers that need sorting out back there too. Time to be a philosophical engineer. Actually, that is wrong. Time to stop being a philosophical engineer, and let the water flow naturally. I have a feeling this may drive me mad!

Good night to Inverness, good night to you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

229.71 kms: Loch Ness Holiday Park, Invermoriston-Bus Stop, Invermoriston-(By bus)-Drumnadrochit

Anyone closely monitoring the blog will see that the increase in mileage from yesterday to today equals a grand total of one point eight kilometres. We woke up on the hard plastic mattress of Legolas and said 'Should we catch the bus?' And all parties answered 'Aye'.

I'm not even going to try and justify the reasons or make excuses. I am going to remind any cynics, and assuage my own guilt, by merely pointing out that Milngavie to Inversnaid has been traversed twice and that means that little and occasional cheats are allowable.

Top: On Loch Ness
Bottom Left: On the bus
Bottom Right: A visitor to the boat

We spent the day on extended breakfasts, small walks, extended lunches and a cruise with a true believer on Loch Ness. It's an odd thing to be the only people. In restaurants or on cruises of Loch Ness. David's afternoon was filled with the cruise ship passengers who were ferried up and around Loch Ness from Inverness to see all there is to see, but his two o'clock sailing was just V—— and I. David came to Loch Ness in 1968 as part of an investigative team looking at the possible things that Nessie could be. He is still there. His boat speil is practised and despite the more intimate setting of only two passengers which can sometimes become a more conversational thing, he stuck to the script which actually involved playing a video he had made. Complete with laminated signs which he periodically pointed at the screen that said things like 'That's me on the left', and ' Me in 1972'. It was really strange. And even though he had been through every possible thing that Nessie may or may not be and ticked them off as probable 'no's, there was a feeling you were left with that he still believed there may be something out there as yet unexplained. I couldn't help wandering if that doggedness was the reason his little signs pointed to an 'ex-wife' rather than a 'wife'.

Urquart Castle from Loch Ness

We must have been noticeably lazy in town all day. When we got to our B&B, Rory, our host, made the strange comment 'I know' to our saying we hadn't actually walked that day, but had, rather, caught the bus. Imagine living somewhere like a small Scottish village where everybody knows everything?
Good night to Drumnadrochit, good night to you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

227.91 kms: Invergarry-Fort Augustus-Invermoriston

Two days of sunshine was all the Scottish climate could handle, and it repaid such wanton extravagance with downpours. Clad all over with high-tech plastics, we quite joyously headed for that most unusual of things on this trip—a mid point with facilities; a lunching place; civilisation half-way between civilisations. Fort Augustus. And with it, the start of Loch Ness. Very exciting.

Top: Tower in the river at Fort Augustus
Bottom Left: Bridge of Oich
Bottom Right: Detail of Lock furniture

The walk we are doing can be done, in the same number of days, by kayak. And there were two groups of people we kept encountering along the way. It is against the current, and at the various locks they have to remove their kayaks and wheel them, fully loaded as they are with all their gear, through the whole lock system: there is no operation of the lock mechanisms for anything so insignificant as a kayak. There is something intriguing about kayaking everywhere, but I am sure it would end up being as labour intensive and sometimes down-right miserable as walking. No way of travelling is perfect. Or I am yet to find one. Have you? Everything has its pros and cons.

Top: Along Loch Ness
Bottom Left: V—— amongst the lock furniture
Bottom Right: One of at least a million waterfalls seen so far

Soup and sandwiched up we headed out along the forest paths along Loch Ness. We had booked into a hobbit hut on the shores of Loch Ness for the night. Our hobbit hut was, as you can see, called Aragorn. THE Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a.k.a Strider. Which proves once and for all that Strider is, and has always been, mine! This is a long debated discussion of stupendous unresolvability between me and my best friend. Just because you fancy Viggo does not mean Strider is yours. The purity of claiming Strider as yours is being the first (of the two of us) to 'read' the character, it usurps all other claims merely involving ugly-chinned actors disguising that fact well under a bushy beard. But now it's settled. Well, it would be if I was telling the truth. We really stayed in Legolas.

Left: Our hut
Right: Okay! Our real hut!

Good night to Invermoriston, good night to you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

204.76 kms: Spean Bridge-(Transported to)-Gairlochy-Clunes-Laggan Locks-(Transported to )-Invergarry

Long story. The 'transported to Gairlochy' wasn't cheating as such, it was accepting the kindness of our host to take us back to where we had officially stopped the night before—except for the fact that our accommodation was three miles from there. Of course, the fact that our host offered due to us asking if there was a bus back to said point doesn't need to be mentioned.

Top Left: A magical forest light before we found a fairy dell
Top Right: Down the Rabbit Hole
Bottom Left: People leave things for the fairies and they arrange them in the forest
Bottom Right: A Scottish tableau

The 'transported to Invergarry' was a different thing. Our morning's walking was splendid. We walked along the loch, found fairy dells, and even tolerated the incessant up and downs of the forest paths. But then everything ground to a halt. Maybe it is the sugar. Truth be known, or at least highly suspected, the main food group that we consume during walking-time is the sugar one. And you know what happens with that little high G.I. nightmare—the crash. Come Laggan Locks, a bus seemed a brilliant idea.

Aside: Riddle me this, but does Laggan sound like a word that may derive from 'lake'? And loch is too? So Laggan, situated on the north eastern end of Loch Lochy, as it is, is really Lake on Lake Lakey. No?

Left: Looking up Loch Ness. No monster yet
Right: Local folk

There is a bar in a barge at the locks. We stopped for a wee imbibement. And salt fix. An amiable couple asked about our adventures. We had been up a little from the road to see where the bus left from and just missed one, we told them. We're walking, but we've had enough for the day and we are riding the rest of the way on the next bus. They gave us the time of the next one from the timetable they had. It was due 1714. We had a half hour. An hour and a half later we were still waiting. Apparently it was the new day for the timetable. Maybe they thought no-one would notice the missing bus in the (unannounced—it seemed, from talking to locals) change. One half of the timetable couple came, caught his bus back to Gairlochy, retrieved his car and drove back to collect wife and dog (these are the only buses I have yet to experience in the UK which don't allow the furred friends aboard). They very kindly ended up giving us a lift into Invergarry. Closely followed, of course, by the bus. There is a part of me that screams out in my subconscious, loud enough for my conscious to hear: 'It's because you didn't walk!' I don't know if that is true.

Good night to Invergarry, good night to you.

Monday, May 19, 2014

185.64 kms: Fort William-Banavie-Gairlochy-Spean Bridge

Canal walking is a different fish. There is the initial elevation to conquer—canals often sit high up in the countryside, like, maybe, even up to twenty meters. And then there is the all too occasional lock which requires at least another few feet of uphill struggle. Meanwhile there are large stretches of straightness, mixed in with curves, but predominantly featuring a uniform flatness. It's hard work. Your pace, especially if Phil is carrying your bag in his blue hatchback (not quite what I expected to turn up to collect our luggage this morning), is only about two times faster than the West Highland Way. As long as you don't get a headwind—that can slow you down quite insignificantly.

Top Left: The start of the Great Glen Way, Fort William Railway Station
Top Right: Ships passing through hand-winched bridges
Bottom Left: Canalside scenery
Bottom Right: V—— at Neptune's Staircase—an eight lock staircase that is considerably easy to climb than the Devil's Staircase

And then there is the issue of having a bad travel agent. Me. I booked the accommodation based on a website who mileage I was pinching, but in a sense of a map. A map would have shown me that Spean Bridge is not actually on the Great Glen Way, but rather a three mile hike on roads away from it. Roads which were traversed by wanna-be rally car racers. Tomorrow a map will show me that InverGarry is on the wrong side on the loch to the Way, and will also require road walking, but I will tell you about that tomorrow. And the next day I will tell you about how just because it says '400 mts from the GGW (Great Glen Way)', doesn't mean that is four hundred accessible meters, it could be four hundred meters of old growth forest on a cliff side. Mmm. Anyway. If these things didn't happen. I would have only canal walking and forest track walking and the one horsefly bite to tell you about, so thank your chosen deity or belief entity.

Enough silliness. Scotland let its sun out today. Ironically someone wondered aloud to us whether it was maybe a little warm for hiking. That tropical eighteen degree weather can be a bit of a killer. We had to resort to ice cream.

Canals and mountains along the Caledonian Canal, including the elusive top of Ben Nevis on the right

And how's this for oddness. We stayed in a magnificent B&B in Spean Bridge (The Braes Guest House—highly recommended), where we were warmly greeted into a gorgeous room and then presented with plunger coffee and biscuits and cake in the guest lounge. That's not the odd bit. The host, Phillipe, is South African born, in the same year of life as me, lived in the same area and, we believe, may have attended the same school. So a girl leaves South Africa, moves to Australia, walks all the way across the UK and meets a man who left South Africa, travelled the world and bought a B&B three miles for a long distance walking track. And just maybe, they went to primary school together. Odd, eh?

Good night to Spean Bridge, good night to you.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Interlude: Fort William, Mallaig, Inverie

For three days we did no walking. Well except for walking up and down from our B&B; traversing, numerous, numerous times, the Fort William High Street; and a little day trip. The third day stopping in Fort William was a last minute decision which assisted in facilitating the social experiment I was telling you about the other day—we needed the extra weekday. So here is the big announcement: in the interest of a fair analysis and good research, in an effort to see how the other eighty per cent live, we have organised to walk the Great Glen Way bag free! That is correct. For the first time in what is now a thousand miles, sixteen hundred kilometres, I am walking a section (seventy-three miles; one hundred and sixteen kilometres) without a bag. Well, without a large backpack. We will still have day packs with all the essentials—wet weather gear, dry weather gear, emergency/everything else gets lost, destroyed or abducted gear. It is necessary to book all the accommodation in order to book the bag transfer, so we have planned slightly longer, bit-of-a-push days to compensate for the return to normal gravity feeling of having no bag. I am sure to tell you, in days to come, how it all works out and how good it feels. The expectations are high.

The view from our room at Balcarres B&B

We had planned two day trips for the days not spent organising the bags: bagging the biggest Munro in Ben Nevis (Ben to the locals) and a trip on the 'Harry Potter' railways line to Mailllag and somewhere onwards.

Ben Nevis never popped his head out from cloud for the one beautiful morning and two and a half days of rain that we were there, so we didn't venture onto him. Apparently the paths were stilled snowed under. Foolishness happens regardless on Ben Nevis. And people who are sensible and prepared still step on what they think is firm ground and find, a thousand feet later that it is a snowy overhang. We preferred bar hopping with blogging, sewing (still sewing the damn Brownie uniform!) and reading.

Top: The most remote pub on mainland Britain, The Old Forge, Inverie
Bottom: One of our dinner stops, The Crannog, in Fort William (we also had great curries during our stay—including the world-famous jalfrezi)

The day we tripped to Mallaig rained. All day. Relentlessly. But the train was warm and it sailed over sodden fields surrounded by beauty. The onward ferry point we chose was Inverie. I'll take the blame actually—the boy, I believe, thought I was mad. You see, the ferry was a little bit of an exaggeration. It was more like a fishing boat, seating six comfortably, and as many as wanted to stand outside in the weather uncomfortably. It landed us in Inverie for an hour and a half. Enough time for a pint in the most remote pub in mainland Britain. The 'ferry' or and eighteen mile hike are the two options for reaching it. It was surprisingly full of hikers. V—— did very well, boat-sensitive as he is, especially on the rather bumpy return trip.

In the forefront: Our ferry

Have you noticed how many 'Inver-'s we have been to? Snaid, arnan, oran, ie, and on our next hike, garry, moriston and ness. I randomly asked Mike, the host at the Balcarres B&B in Fort William what 'inver' means. On the morning we left he presented us with a print-out of the origins of Scottish place names that Jackie, his partner, had looked up when Mike mentioned it to her (can they get any cuter?). Turns out 'inver' means confluence of waters. So much water, so many 'invers'—makes perfect sense.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

158.21 kms: Kinlocleven-Lairigmor-Bla a Chaorainn-Blarmachfoldach-Glengour-Fort William

Oh boy. After a hundred and forty kilometres of walking over loose, moving rocks, I cracked it. Loose, moving rocks mean ankles that twist at odd angles, which makes knees jerk off to sides they don't normally visit, which makes hips feel like they belong to grandmothers. Loose, moving rocks mean the impact of foot to ground is not a flat, even surfaced thing but rather a pointed impact onto an arch, or a heel, or a toe pad. So out came the map and we deviated out onto the road for the last ten or so kilometers of the walk into Fort William. Purism is for the walkers of the West Highland Way; we' re walking to John O'Groats.

I am available for hire to re-spin anything you don't want to do into a justifiable and perfectly logical explanation rather than an excuse not to do it.

Top Left: The beginning of the day—it all went downhill from there by going uphill at a rather alarming rate!
Top Right: The way
Bottom Left: And more way, a red patch of it which is unusual to see
Bottom Right: The Official End of the West highland Way!

The Way was a little like the High Street today. People passed us in droves. It was so busy that even the law of averages came into play, and we were able to pass someone for a change (a sixty-something year old man who walked like a duck). He eventually righted the books by passing us again at one of our many lunch stops.

Footsore and weary, we found our home for the next few days (a mini break in Fort William). Balcarres B&B commands amazing views over the loch (for which we had to climb a rather steep road—clouds, silver linings, that sort of thing) and is a fifteen minute walk into town. The hosts are lovely, and we manage to engage Mike in an extended conversation every morning. We are planning the next stage of the hike—the Great Glen Way (guaranteed to see Nessie)—and I have a surprise to tell you about that. A very exciting social experiment, but I'll tell you more in a little interlude blog soon, with some of the other things we have been doing on our break. In the mean time we have done a one hundred and fifty-six kilometre long distance walk in only one hundred and fifty-eight, and a break has me all eager to start the next leg very soon! Talk to you then.

Good night to Fort William, good night to you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

131.77 kms: Glencoe Mountain Resort-Kings House-Devil's Staircase-Kinlochleven

There is something psychologically damaging about walking for miles and miles and miles and still being able to see the place you left from. It makes you think you are getting nowhere.

There is something psychologically damaging in names. Call something the Devil's Staircase and it becomes an insurmountable obstacle filled with fear and dread. Where, really, one foot in front of the other eventually gets you there, devil or not.

Top: Look at how small the house in the right hand corner is
Bottom: A beautifully sculpted valley

There is something psychologically damaging about having no name. When you get up and over a thing called the Devil's Staircase and then have to make a rocky, winding descent on the other side with no justifiable reason or name or recognition, it does something silly to your brain. It should be the Devil's Ramp, or the Devil's Torture, or the Devil's Downhill.

There is something psychologically damaging about going downhill. In theory, it should be a pleasant, enjoyable thing. I find myself holding on to the front of my boots with my toenails, hunching my shoulders like Uriah Heep, and clenching my poles like they are the only thing between me and the precipice of death. A sweet lady passed me on the way up the Staicase, and then came back the other way: she said 'When I was on the top, I thought "I must tell the lady in the bright yellow jacket that the other side is all downhill."' She thought that was a good thing.

Left: Up one side. Devil's Staircase
Right: And down the other. No name.

There is something psychologically damaging about being able to see your destination from a great height and then walking a circuitous route, seemingly in every other direction but straight-toward, to get there. I eventually gave this portion of the road a name—The Road of Disappointments. Around every corner, before you reached it, was hope; around every corner, when you reached it, was more road. V—— had a name for it too, but it doesn't do to say that particular word outside of a forest where the saying of it doesn't exist if no-one is there to hear it.

There is nothing that cures all psychological damage incurred in a day like a warm room, a warm shower, a pub next door, a large fluffy doona and a hot chocolate.

Balance? Even.

A very good night to Kinlochleven, and a very good night to you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

114.08 kms: Bridge of Orchy-Inveroran-Glencoe Mountain Resort

Are you tired of hearing me talk about walking? What if we have a little chat about metaphor instead. There was a lot of space for thinking today on an amazing, sunny twelve mile stroll through Rannoch Moor. I know I said no walk-talk, but can I just tell you it was extraordinarily beautiful and remote. Stunning. I was listening to Dolly Parton while taking in all the amazing scenery, and she was singing 'Love is like a Butterfly'. It made me think: I much prefer metaphor to simile. Sure she would have had to change the tune, but 'Love is a Butterfly' evokes a much stronger image. Instead of 'the multicolored moods of love are like it's satin wings', go 'the multicoloured (better with a 'u') moods of love are it's satin wings'. Not that I am trying to tell Dolly what to do—she is a master poet—it's just that I think I prefer the directness of the metaphor without all the mess of 'like' and 'as'.

Left: Between Bridge of Orchy and Inveroran
Centre: Walking with Rannoch Moor in the background (hard to not stop and look back every thirteen steps!)
Right: Stormy over the mountains

Walking the great wide moorish spaces between hill passes, my body was Clan, wool clad, marching to meet the leaders of my enemies in the valley of Glen Coe. My feet are military boots, ringing a march on the rock-lined roads. My heart is a starling, high on the wind with the world a curve below me. It was more pleasure than pain today. I don't know if it was the sunshine, the pathway, the eggs I had for breakfast. Maybe it doesn't matter. Whose over-thinking things? It's nicer to walk through the countryside and think about elements of grammar.

Top: 'You lookin' at me?'
Centre: There is a magical light in the UK when there is cloud and sun together—it makes colour sing in a way that really can't be captured with a point-and-shoot camera
Bottom: Hobbit Huts, Glencoe Mountain Resort

Good night to Glencoe, good night to you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

95.76kms: Tyndrum-Bridge of Orchy

The day greeted us with a steady falling rain. All the weather gear came out. And stayed out. It made the prospect of camping tonight one that we no longer wanted to entertain. In the tiny town of Tyndrum, with its award winning fish and chip shop, a Green Welly catering-for-everything establishment and the Tyndrum Inn, they also managed to squeeze in a Visit Scotland shop. We decided to put an end to worrying and book accommodation for the next three nights.

Left: Leaving Tyndrum in the rain
Right: Highland cattle

For any of you who may not have read this blog before, worrying about accommodation is my biggest bug-bear. It comes about from the fact that although I have the rudimentary things necessary to camp out, and I persist in carrying them miles and miles on my back, I really, really, no, really, don't want to camp. My main camping accessory is a bivvy bag. Read: a body bag with a tent bottom, a goretex top, which closes with a drawstring, into which you shove the precious things—leaving all the rest outside under your waterproof bag cover, including boots which slugs can walk into for warmth—and then yourself, sleeping bag ensconced. You fashion a pillow from clothing and a beaver (if you have one, pseudo-beaver if not). And you pull the string tight so that only a small hole is left for air, and to allow more slug ingress—won't do to not wake up with slug bits in your hair. It will be cold, damp and no matter how carefully you selected a hidden treasure of an illegal camping spot, two things will happen: there will be rocks, lumps and thistles where it looked amazingly flat, and you will be caught by someone on the morning. This is usually because the night is so miserable that the only sleep you get is when the sun comes up and warms you above temperature frozen. I always sleep in!

Left: Someone's (no names) ridiculous, but luckily short lived attempt to get a bit of that snow
Right: Home for the night—just don't convert from pounds and it sounds perfectly reasonable!

We celebrated booking accommodation (especially an expensive alternative to camping tonight) by having coffee and cake before doing any walking. Luckily it was an easy-ish sort of day, and mid afternoon had us in a warm hotel having gins and tonics. Too many. Is that a thing?

Good night to Bridge of Orchy, good night to you.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

85.03 kms: Inverarnan-Crianlarich-Auchtertyre-Tyndrum

We started in on the bigger numbers again today. Where we have hopped from town to town along the way, most people we see are going between two and three points. We probably have a luxury of time they may not have. We are also old school (or just old), unlike about eighty per cent of the walkers (who are old too), and carry our own bags. But despite all the excuses in the world, I feel a bit slack. When we sat down after a seemingly easy five kilometres for our first break yesterday, a girl from Glasgow came past. She was feeling weary, but she had good reason. They had walked from Balmaha to Inverarnan the day before. That's twenty-one miles—including that horrific stretch from yesterday—and she had never done any training. It took us three stages to do the same! Mind you, she was considering catching public transport after six of her planned nineteen today. I think it is harder than it seems. We met another couple today who are quitting and heading back to Milngavie. Maybe slowly is the more sensible option. Maybe that is me just trying to feel good about being bad.

Left: Wild rivers running deep
Centre: It's looking a lot more moorish
Right: V——'s first stile
We did twelve miles. I had to play mind games with myself to get me to the end after the first five. My legs didn't want to work. I relied quite heavily on my poles. The first year I walked without poles. The second and third I had them, but I always felt that using them was, in some strange way, cheating. This year I think they are saving my knees, and my soul. They displace the energy. Sore arms at the end of the day yesterday spoke to that. If nothing else they make descents, especially in the descendingly timid, a much, much faster thing. I think they will be out a fair bit this year.

We stayed in a B&B in Tyndrum. It was V——'s first real one. He described the owner as being like a brigadier in the Second World War, Battle of Britain. Quoting V——, with a high British accent: Blue squadron will deploy their bombers here, here and here with the intent of knocking over Jerry by midday and returning to base for an early lunch. Doesn't really work in print! We dined in a (greasy smelling) establishment that had won best fish and chips in the UK for 2014. We both had haddock, chips and mushy peas. V—— scored it a 7.5; I gave it a 7 (the chips weren't fabulous, the fish was, the peas were in a paper cup—I'm funny about paper). Overnight the brigadier turned off the hot water (it seemed, from the lukewarm bath) and the heaters. Mmm, we weren't so fond of him the next day.

Good night to Tyndrum, good night to the brigadier, good night to you.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

65.78 kms: Inversnaid-Doune-Ardleish-Inverarnan

Well that did it! I think I have permanently lost some use in both of my knees! Whoo! They say that today's stretch is the hardest of the route. It is certainly the most arduous. It hugs the cliff-side around the Loch for about five miles, popping torturously up and down rocky paths, darkened under overhanging trees and damp and muddy for the same reason. But I had always known it was the worst bit, and so, in that strange way that superlatives have of negating themselves, I quite enjoyed it. All of me except the knees, of course.

Top: Looking back down the length of Loch Lomond
Bottom: Doune, alongside the loch

As we came around one steep rocky decline, we came across some Dutch people lurking about. My initial thought was: 'Um, couldn't you find a pee-pee spot a little more off the path than that?' The thoughts got odder when another Dutch person popped his head around the corner and asked if we had a torch. 'What have you lost?' I enquired. Apparently they had lost a kid goat with a broken leg. They had tried to grab it to take back to Inversnaid Hotel where Animal Rescue would collect it, but it had got scared and rushed off and fallen into a cave. Torch out, kid out, Dutchies on their way out. All was good.

Top: Selfie with Inversnaid hotel in background
Bottom Left: Walking the hardest section of the West Highland Way
Bottom Right: Dining with friends at the Drover's Inn

When we popped into civilisation at the campsite in Invernarnan, salt and sugar cravings took over and we sat down to ice cream, chips and soft drinks to energise ourselves for the five hundred meter walk to our hotel. The hotel is called the Drover's Inn. It was a place where superlatives had set expectations once again. I had seen reviews that said it was the dirtiest pub in the whole UK. (See how desperate we are to not camp? We booked despite that review!) We were given a room on the third floor (just cruel) called the Hoggs Suite (I dunno?). The Inn was built in 1705. I thought it was delightful. You got lost going around it, and sure, it did have a patina about it, but it had ghosts (possibly of the all the stuffed animals it had about the place, including a shark, a bear, an elusive Haggis, a two-headed sheep and the cutest little bunny head on a plaque that I ever did see). We had a shared bathroom with only a bath, and carpet on the floor (I can never understand a carpeted bathroom, especially when they don't provide a bath mat). It had character, and a definite air of having been around for a while, but I can imagine that some people would see that as dirtiness. We didn't see ghosts, but more mortifiedly, we also didn't see Eurovision. It is the first year in I-don't-know-how-long. Anybody know who won? Anyone with a blow-by-blow of the outfits? I hear there was a bearded woman. Eurovision never disappoints!

Good night to Inverarnan, good night to you.

Friday, May 9, 2014

54.78 kms: Rowardennen-Inversnaid

And here I am at the beginning again. Or the end. The place I finished last time I walked this way. Today was emotional. I threw a wobbly. I think there is an evil spirit in Rowardennen (which is ironic as the name, apparently, is a combination of words that includes an enchanted Scottish flower which wards off evil spirits!). I felt better once I left but I was still conflicted and it required a hissy fit to sort it out. Anyone who has followed along with any of my travels with the boy will know that I always have (at least) one. Maybe I am a spoiled brat. In the past walking has been a game I've played alone. I work well alone. I am able to have my good days and my bad days without getting crippling guilt about who has to witness it all. I can make decisions that affect only one person. I don't have to try and make all the decisions so they suit me and then resent other travelling partners for not making interactive contributions to the decision-making process. Alone means many things, but the biggest is the walking. Today I realised that without the ability to be alone in nature, in your thoughts, physically, the rest of what makes up this type of travelling is the bad stuff. (Ooh, I am being a whiner, aren't I?) I like the feel of pushing yourself physically but not so much that I like to carry that over-laden pack. I like the freedom that having no plan brings until it means sleeping in a field, on cold, hard ground, in the rain. I like the commune with nature, as long as it doesn't include torrential rain, blasting sun, headwinds or midges. But i put up with all those things if it means solitude in its purest form. Suddenly I had a bit of a problem—not quite sure why I didn't see it coming: I'm not alone!

Top Left: National Park graffiti
Top Right: Glimpses of the Loch
Bottom Left: I can still find him a far behind me with that hat!
Bottom Right: Waterall at Inversnaid

I had the perfect plan. We catch a ferry and a train to Glasgow, hire a station-wagon, stop at a camping store and get a cheap blow-up mattress for the back of it, a couple of two-way radios, a second copy of all the maps (and, as a sweetener to V——, a new wrist GPS), stop at a home wears store and get a cheep sheet and doona (instant accommodation), and then every morning I start walking towards a destination with a much lightened pack, V—— drives to the destination, parks the car, gets his own much lightened pack and walks to meet me along the track. We get to spend (a lot of money?) time alone, and time together, we have accommodation if we need it and a way of getting to accommodation if that doesn't seem suitable that night. Brilliant. Except for the fact that V—— hated it. Always has. It's not the first time I've had this idea. It was the first time it had a station wagon, a blow-up mattress and a GPS. My mood hit gravel again. I walked off in front of V—— for an hour and a half. Enough in front that I couldn't really hear him behind me. My mood improved somewhat. His pacing did too. Then I did it again for another hour. Although I was a little worried during that hour that he would fall off a cliff and I wouldn't know. It's a tentative plan for the moment. It doesn't solve all the problems, but it may make it doable. I am sure many of you are reading this and wondering what on earth I am going on about. It's probably not something you will ever understand until you have walked fifteen hundred kilometres on your own and then tried to walk fifty with someone else. It is quite an amazingly privileged problem to have—I recommend it highly.

I do have a much more serious problem though: Historical Romantic Literature! I'm addicted to Kindle's Daily Deal. I do hold back as much as I can but when they offered up Tracey Brogan's Highland Surrender for ninety-nine cents a few days before I left for the highlands, I took it as a sign, and bought it. Now I can't stop reading it. And I am much too much of a literary snob to read historical, or otherwise, romance. It's a disease! Maybe it is my virus-addled brain at work and once the snot moves out I will be able to control myself. Although the denouement will have come and gone and the rivalling clans will be united by the love shown by these betrothed enemies so it will be a mute point anyway. I'm so ashamed. But I have to go read so I'm signing off.

Good night to Inversnaid, good night to you, for tomorrow we tread new roads!

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

43.58 kms: Balmaha-Milarrochy-Sallochy-Rowardennen

A few wines. Oops, I mean whines. It had to happen.

Also a swear word. It had to happen.

Top: Bluebell time of the year
Bottom Left: Any reason to get these off your back; great coffee an even better excuse
Bottom Right: Looking back along Loch Lomond

I have worked as a waitress, as a travel agent, as a shop person. All jobs where you deal with the public. And let's face it, the public is a temperamental, annoying, demanding entity, but they are your livelihood, even if it is via the person who owns or runs any given service enterprise. I have a huge inability to understand bad service. Even though it happens often, today's serving was the worst I have experienced in a long time. We're staying at the Rowardennen Hotel. The staff at the hotel are fine, but we went in to the Clansman Bar attached to have dinner and I have no recollection of experiencing such rudeness in a service industry. Ever. They have a captive audience. To a degree. Walkers on the West Highland Way seem commonly to bypass Balmaha and stay here the night. But can I say this to you—and to anyone who will listen—reconsider that idea. And if you stick to the standard plan, stay at the hostel, eat at the hostel. Do not go to the Clansman! And beside that, the meal was sub-standard: we had rehashed breakfast sausages on dried out mash with a gravy of broth-like proportions with no greens. We got out of there as quickly as humanly possible. Vile!

Why am I sick again on this section of the walk? I am starting to think that there is a more divine reason. We stayed a day in Balmaha to try and help me leave this cough behind. Last time I came this way, this night in Rowardennen was spent sitting almost upright coughing all night long. (I do recall a dissatisfaction with the bar last time too, but I didn't write about it at the time). The one day off this time has not helped. Do you think someone or something is trying to stop me going further? Does something ominous await me on the trail past Inversnaid? I'm not listening, but I am mightily annoyed. Walking up hills brings on asthma-like episodes, coughing is giving me a massive headache, I can't sleep nights. I am, in short, having a truly miserable time. And it is so much worse to have a miserable time on holidays when the expectation to enjoy yourself is so high. Feeling like this is making me panic, like I did last time, about accommodation because the last thing in the universe I want to do is sleep on some precarious rocky ledge in a goretex body bag. Call me crazy, it just doesn't appeal.

Left: Walking in the bluebells
Right: Skimming stones on the loch: an idyllic life

This grumpiness will pass. My knees will hurt less, all my other joints will stop carrying the slack my knees create, the sun will come out, the midges will stay away, the walking will get easier and the pack seem lighter. But at this stage I really wish there was a friendly bar around where I could drown a whine or two with a wine or two!

Good night to Rowardennen (except for the two arseholes at the bar), good night to you.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

30.34 kms: Drymen-Conic Hill-Balmaha

Last time I did this stretch of countryside I was in a foul mood. It was just one of those days. And doing it again made concrete a life-fundamental, things are harder when your emotion fights against them. I remember the long slog uphill to the forest, the distracting signs due to forest works, the long, almost waterfall like path ascending Conic Hill, the pain-inducing descent, the nightmare gate which was too small to allow me and my bag to pass through together and which was on a hill which made dropping the bag over the fence very difficult. Today it was like coming back to a beach you used to frequent as a child to find the waves are not nearly as big as you remember them. All the unpleasantness of that day was to do with the fact I was grumpy. Sure it was a slog up the road to the forest, sure the forest was a little more like a plane of tree stumps than a forest, sure Conic Hill was hard, up and down, and that damn gate is still as annoying, but I actually quite enjoyed my day. The only thing that could have made it better would be getting rid of this cold. I've reached the green and yellow phlegm stage. It's so nice for those around me!

Can you spot the path we have to climb?

I've done lots of catching up today with the free wifi at the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha (thanks, and the spinach and butternut squash lasagna was quite nice too), but I'm cutting it short tonight to get some rest. See you in the morning!

Top Left: Heading back down, towards Loch Lomond and Balmaha
Botton Left: Blue skies, fluffy clouds, stone walls and sheep
Top Right: View from atop Conic Hill
Bottom Right: Windswept selfies

Good night to Balmaha, good night to you.

Monday, May 5, 2014

19.52 kms Milngavie-Drumgoyne-Gartness-Easter Drumquhassel-Drymen

Two unusual things will happen on this trip: I'll walk a route I have already walked but this time with another person, and, I will walk places I have never been and share the experience, which I have never done. Ultimately it makes you look at things in a different way. Do you like to travel alone? Or would you prefer to be with someone? There are benefits to both. I am a bit of a loner. People—even the ones I rather fancy—tend to drive me a little mad. So I love the difference being all alone makes. But there is something about any given holiday in which the best aspect of it is not during it, but rather in the retelling of it to others. Travelling with someone gives you the sounding-board to bounce that off, rather than relying on the kindness of those who stayed at home and now have to listen to you clap on and on about how amazing your holiday was. And, god forbid, see all the photos.

Top: One of two photos taken today—the start of the West Highland Way
Bottom: The other

Today we (re)walked the first day of the West Highland Way, a ninety-six mile, long distance path from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William and the joining point between Loch Lomond and Loch Ness. On my last trip I actually finished in Inversnaid, a tiny town a few nights stay away from where we are now. I was, like I unfortunately am now, not well. I just had to get to drugs! And so I caught a ferry and a train out of there and called it quits for the trip. Normally I would start again where I had left off, but the next day out of Inversnaid is a notoriously difficult day—walking precariously along the cliffed edge of the loch. It was a little much to expect the boy, on his first day of lugging around a huge pack, just for the fun of it (or the later reminiscences) to do. So instead I gave him this long, but relatively easy-terrained day. And a pre-booked hotel at the end of it (The Winnock Hotel, Drymen: big bed all to myself, while V—— struggles in the little bed (little bed, little pillows, little man, little jaws—little in-joke referencing the absent and greatly missed Darby—and Lollii); great large bath for slight muscle relief; sufficient (but not amazing) dinner in the bar while Liverpool slaughters Crystal Palace on the TV). The next couple of days are far shorter (although tomorrow has a killer hill!), and so the theory of easing into it, should become more of a reality.

How did he fare? Not to badly, he says. Feet a bit sore, back seems alright. 'Did he enjoy it' gets a non-committal 'yeah'. How did I fare? I did moderately well being a social animal instead of a recluse. And I only really threw a wobbly towards the end of the day when I had to physically demonstrate the 'travel at the pace of the slowest boy scout' theory going wrong by stopping for as long as he did every time he stopped to wait for me and then started again when I caught up, and so ending up ages behind him. Make sense? If you are quicker, and stop all the time to wait for the slower one to catch up, the person behind gets tireder and tireder because they never get to stop. a time comes when everyone needs to be behind, and keep pace with, the slowest person. He wore the whole Boy Scout uniform with scarf and toggle today. I was so proud. But he never was a scout and so a practical (and sarcastic) display on my part was required (according to me). I think we have that sorted. Now, to sleep, with the hope of resting some of these pains and sniffles away.

Goodnight to Drymen, goodnight to you!

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Friday, May 2, 2014

648.5 kms: London Euston-Glasgow Central

I visited Glasgow last in about 1994. They kicked me out of the country, just for being honest, while I was there. Well, that is how I tell the story. What I recall of Glasgow from that time was snow, wallpaper, glasshouses and curry. Luckily, this time there is no snow.

Left: the Necropolis
Centre: Art Nouveau Ironwork on a garden in the East End
Right: Policeman at a Police box, or, is it ...? The doctor?

Prior to taking the first steps on the rest of a walking journey, we have spent three nights getting over the flight and having a little squizz at Glasgow once again. Have to say, I am quite liking it. I've never utilised them before, but I am loving the hop-on, hop-off bus. It takes you round to all the sights, tells you all about them in nine languages and a ghoulish kids version, and gives you the opportunity to get on and off at the ones you fancy. We bought a two day ticket for fourteen pounds. The hardest thing was deciding, in limited time, which sights to see. On day one we did the science museum (completely culturally irrelevant, but loads of fun and interaction, and they had ferrofluid—google it, it is simply the most magical thing you ever did see). Then we visited the Necropolis, a hill high above the cathedral and looking out over Glasgow, on, or in, which sits some fifty thousand souls, dearly departed, for whome the most amazing monuments have been erected. For those who know him, you can imagine the ponderings on the ethereal nature of life and the futility of 'waiting for later' that this visit evoked in the boy.

On the train from London we had sat with a gentleman by the name of Andy who had made us a list of what he recommended we see in Glasgow. He had also pointed us in the direction of some of the best houses of curry in the city. Glasgow is renowned for being one of the best places on the planet for Indian curry. We went to a tiny little restaurant close to us, coincidently called The Wee Curry Shop. It was tiny, packed and we had to go to the pub for forty-five minutes before we could even get in, but it was the, no, let me correct myself, THE, best curry. Ever. The boy, in typical understatement said: 'Well, it was nice.' Admittedly it was quite spicy. I think he was sweating.

Top Left: Daffodils outside the Science Museum
Bottom Left: Strange perspectives in Selfies
Right: Glasgow is apparently one of the best places for Victorian architecture

The mad brownie uniform dash, the night shifts, the running around, the long flight, the Scottish summer weather have all conspired to give me a cold. I was a little less than lustrous for our second day of sightseeing in Glasgow. V—— relished and I wandered in the Riverside Museum, an amazingly designed building containing a transport museum, with a tall ship berthed alongside which you could board and explore. Then I relished and V—— wandered in the greenhouses at the Botanical gardens.

We shopped for dinner and spent the night in our flat. A friend told us about Airbnb. If you haven't seen it, try it. I just eavesdropped and told some ladies in a cafe there in Balmaha, middle-of-nowhere, Scotland, the same thing. It's effectively couch-surfing with a commercial aspect. You stay in people's rooms, flats, houses or castles. A huge range of amazing places to stay which are not hotels. We had a one bedroom apartment with a lounge, full kitchen, balcony, use of a leisure centre with pool, spa, sauna and steam room (which we didn't end up using), built in the old mill houses overlooking the Forth and Clyde canal and the city, all for less than a hotel would have cost us. It was a bit of a walk into town. But it's not like we couldn't use some training given the hundreds of kilometres we are about to embark on with no other physical build up! Tomorrow we say goodbye to this lovely bussed around, luxury apartmented, walking with only a day pack lifestyle and commence what we came to do. Deities help us!

Top Left: View from our apartment; early morning
Bottom Left: inside the Kibble Palace, Botanic Gardens
Top Right: Riverside Museum with a reflection of the tall ship, the Glenlee, in the windows
Bottom Right: Plum coloured tulips at the Botanic Gardens

Good night to Glasgow, good night to you. Reminiscing about my Travels over with:

Travel Tuesday

Thursday, May 1, 2014

17707 kms: Melbourne-Sydney-Hong Kong-London

Bad: Completely forgot to bring Wesley. How can you bifurcate a country with a beaver if you forget your beaver?

Good: Premium Economy, Virgin Atlantic.

Left: Me and the boy at Honkers
Right Top: It still looks like airplane food
Right Bottom: Pseudo-Wesley

Bad: For some reason we were amongst the last to board. We had to rush our pre-takeoff champagne.

Good: Although we were meant to be in a central row of three, the ladies in the two seats by the window were with the third person in our row and asked if we would mind swapping. Um, no.

Good: Not only did we have premium economy, and the window seats, we also had the bulkhead—no-one in front of us to put back their seat into our personal plane space.

Bad: Having the bulkhead means you have to wait until the seatsbelt sign is turned off to play with your TV. No playing poker while the plane takes off. You also can't have anything in front of you and so it is, like, hours, or minutes at least, before you can take off your shoes.

Good: Crockery, glass, metal, linen.

Bad: Was it the build up, the night shifts, the mad rush to finish (didn't) the Brownie uniforms, the increasing burden of age? I had the most annoying headache for most of the flight. V—— plied me with progressively stronger medications and in the end I tossed and turned and drooled all over my replacement Wesley (a substandard and perfectly ordinary travel pillow). I missed out on a perfectly fabulous eight-at-least movie marathon.

Good: I did watch one movie per flight and enjoyed them both, even though water came from my eyes both times. I watched Frozen (I wish I could live in an amazing green dress in a frozen castle on a hill and that a marshmallow monster would keep people from my door, but it seems the theme implies we should let people into our hearts to warm them, goddam!) and Saving Mr Banks (which effectively says the same thing, and aren't Emma Thompson's calves beautiful?)

Bad: Arriving in London at 5:35 am.

Good: Not a single solitary person in front of us in the immigration queue (I was in that queue last time for an hour and a half and found out all about quilting shops in New England—luckily that is something that I am quite interested in, even if I didn't know I was).

Good: London. Just good. A spiritual home. A journey beginning. So happy to be back.