On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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1 July 2019

One foot after the other

A week of hiking on the West Highland Way. First part across the Highlands, in the rain and with a head full of questions.
Highlands, Scotland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

The sky today doesn’t look great. It is gray and rainy and it is my first day on the West Highland Way. I left Italy and its scorching sun for Scotland and its capricious weather. It doesn’t matter, that’s what I was looking for. Cooler temperatures. It is mid-June and after a week under the 30°C of North Italy, I welcome the chilly 15° C of Scotland. I am gone for five weeks of hiking across the country. Five weeks of physical effort and return to peace if mind. Starting by The West Highland Way, the best known Scottish hike, the busiest and also the most marked. I decide to start with this one for my first big hike of several days. I have already done three-four day treks but this is the first long-distance hike I do alone. About 154km to connect Milngavie, a small suburb of Glasgow to Fort Williams in the heart of the Highlands. A week to cross some of the most beautiful landscapes of Scotland.

I left Milngavie behind me. Today is Saturday and there is already quite a lot of people on the trail. I cross the Scottish countryside, which is not very exotic for now. A mixture of meadows and small forests. I walk on small roads and forest paths. In the afternoon, the clouds finally disperse and the landscape brighten with colors. The bag is heavy. Really heavy. The belt of the brand new bag is a little rigid and tightens my hips. It damages my skin causing severe irritation, bruising and inflammation. The pain increases with the passing hours and I find it more and more difficult to walk. I welcome with relief the appearance of the tiny Drymen campsite at the end of the afternoon. About twenty tents have already been set up in what looks like the garden of a large farm. I install mine under a beautiful sun hobbling as best I can. My hips are all damaged and the soles of my feet have suffered. About twenty kilometers made today. With a bag of around twenty kilos. I attack hard and probably a little too hard. The clouds are coming back and I can’t help but ask myself a lot of questions: how will the weather be tomorrow? Will I be able to do the entire hike? Is the pleasure of hiking really worth the bad weather and the physical pain?

The next day, my hips cry with pain under the weight of the bag. But like everything else, human mind gets used to everything. So as the hours go by, under a sky alternating clouds and sun I get used to the pain. The variations in brightness make the landscape superb. And I learn to accept pain, to walk by its side, not to let my mind focus on it. It is still damn hard. At the Drymen post office, I send 450g of things back to my parents. My bag is too heavy and I have to get rid of my unnecessary luggage. But the extra 2kg come from my computer and the various chargers. Do I have to get rid of it?

Many people pass me. Other walkers. I’m not alone on the West Highland Way. Far from there. I start to notice faces seen yesterday or at the campsite. Most of them only have small bags. They must sleep in a hotel or use the luggage transfer service. Should I do the same? Should my misplaced pride of wanting to carry all my stuff outweigh the pleasure of hiking? Is the difficulty part of the experience? Of my choice of experience? The fact remains that even people loaded with large bags don’t seem to have as much trouble as I do. I don’t seem to be in as good shape as I thought. I find it hard to accept it. I thought I was an accomplished hiker … I tell myself that this hike is like life: always difficult at first. And that success depends on knowing how to accept difficulties and surpass it.

The ascent of Conic Hill is not that difficult. This is the point of interest of the day. 300 meters ascent to enjoy the view of Loch Lomond. At the top, the large lake is dotted with small islands. With the rays of the sun it is very beautiful. But very touristy. A farmer shouts at his dogs who are trying in vain to gather a group of scattered sheep. The descent on the other side is strewn with stairs making progress difficult. Arriving in Balmaha, I have the impression of disembarking for a moment in a tourist resort on a paradise island. But no, I am in Scotland, in the heart of Scotland. I join the shore of the big lake and the path runs along the edge for another six kilometers. It hurts in every places of my body but the peaceful atmosphere diffuses a feeling of well-being in my mind. The small, almost empty bivouac area of Sallochy Bay appears in the early evening in a cloud of midges. I set up my things at top speed trying somehow to escape the painful bite of the tiny insects. Already a second day on the West Highland way.

The Scottish countryside.

The climb to Conic Hill. 

Loch Lomond.

The rain welcomes me when I wake up and the prospect of doing the planned 27km suddenly seems impossible. Yesterday I felt optimistic but today is different. The first step is to reach the Inversnaid Hotel, fifteen kilometers from here. For the rest, I will see. The weather is gloomy all morning. Fortunately, carrying the bag is less painful. I walk along the lake whose color varies from light gray to dark gray depending on the clouds. After 6km I reach Rowardennan. Almost two hours of walking already. I chat a little with a Frenchman who camped there. Curiously, the discussion cheers me up. The path quickly turns into a steep path along the edge of the lake with pebbles and roots and only going up and down. God it is difficult. However, the difficult part of the trek is supposed to be the following part (like that but worse) from Inversnaid to Inverarnan. If I am already having trouble here I don’t want to imagine after. The rain is getting stronger and stronger and I almost run. Curiously, in the rain, the weight of the bag seems to disappear, my mind being focused on something else.

At noon, I still have a good five kilometers to go to reach Inversnaid. It is time to change my plans, it will be impossible for me to do the 27km planned. Too bad. With a 15-kilogram bag, I can only seem to travel 15 kilometers a day. I don’t want to kill myself, I prefer to try to enjoy walking. So I am going to take the ferry from Invesnaid to Tarbet on the other side of the lake then a bus to Inverarnan.

I arrive at 2:05 p.m. in Inversnaid, 10 minutes before the ferry. I did almost 16.5 km without stopping. I am really tired. The ferry takes me to Tarbet in torrential rain and I collapse in the only small cafe in the area. A deliverance. It is 3 p.m, I haven’t eaten yet. I buy a homemade soup, a bacon-brie panini, a hot soy milk chocolate with marshmallow and a slice of chocolate cake. All of that. It is too much for my stomach but just enough for my tired mind. I chat with a young English couple who camped in Sallochy Bay like me last night. They too decided to take the ferry and the bus. The bus arrives, almost full and I let the hum of the engine plunge me into a soft torpor as we drive along the lake. Inverarnan appears and I disembark in front of a farm campsite under a radiant sun. The lake has made way for the hills of the Highlands. It is very beautiful but again full of midges.

I get up under a stormy sky but not yet rainy. But the rain is a traitor and surprises me when I come back from the bathroom. It is the deluge. A good lesson to remember: always put the tent away when it is not raining, as soon as possible, the rest (personal care, breakfast) can wait. My tent is soaked. I quickly pack up and try to dry my things in the camping “kitchen” but it as a waste of time.

Apparently it will rain all day and even at night. I got cold when I arrived in Scotland and the weather makes things worse. I am loosing my voice. I give in to the call of comfort and reserve a small cabin at the next campsite. There are only big ones left at £ 45. It is expensive but it is the price for being dry.

Despite the rain, the hike is beautiful and peaceful. The weight of the bag is bearable and the rain does not get too strong. Around me, the green hills of the Highlands begin to appear. The same questions that I had a few days ago are going through my mind. Why walk? Why impose physical and mental pain? Is the answer that there is no answer and that I have to accept it? Do things happen because they happen, without necessarily making sense?

With the rain nature seems really inhospitable. And very much alive. It is the kingdom of grass and ferns. Unless you have fur, you cannot survive in the wild for long with all this water. I go to Crianlarich for lunch then continue in the rain to finally reach Tyndrum and my little cabin. A very small wooden chalet with just benches, heating and a kettle. Heaven. I dry my stuffs which are starting to smell and venture to a small restaurant for a well deserved meal.

A wild goat and the forest in the mist.

The sky is gray and humid this morning. It is starting to be redundant. At least I slept well and my things are dry. I leave Tyndrum in the rain, sinking into the valleys. Green mountains with extraordinary shapes surround me. Despite the traffic noise of the A82, which is never far away, I feel like I am starting to sink into the wilderness of the Highlands. The clouds fray over the top of Beinn Dorain. Its pointed shape fascinates me. A few rays of sunshine fall just in time bringing a wonderful dimension to the landscape. Followed by a well-felt downpour that will shorten my midday meal. I trace the road, skirting the sides of the mountain. Nothing but green grass. Water drips on my face. As usual, worried thoughts quickly come to my mind. I try to calm them down by realizing that despite everything I feel good, I am not cold, I do not wet too much. Everything is fine. And then, the prospect of being able to take a hotel room as a last resort soars reassuringly at the edge of my mind.

Looking at the landscapes whose colors are mainly centered on green and gray, I tell myself that it is a shame that the weather is so gloomy. And that it prevents me from enjoying the hike. But reality doesn’t care about all that. It is raining, it is raining. The end. Reality doesn’t care if I am down there doing the West Highland Way. The good lesson from all of this is that I have to accept reality as it comes. At Bridge of Orchy, clearings return. I leave the town with a happy spirit. How beautiful is this sky with variations of gray, these clouds clinging to the mountains and these rays of sun giving contrast to the landscape. I climb on the top of the small hill overlooking Loch Tulla. A small plateau and mountain ranges appear. It is wonderful. The slightly wilder part of the trail begins. Threatening clouds pass by and I observe the constantly changing landscape.

The descent to Inveroran Hotel is shorter than expected and here I am at a small area for bivouacking next to a river and a small stone bridge. Nothing except the mountains, a few cows and an inn a few meters before. And a dozen walkers who will camp at the same place. “Wild” without really being it. It rains more or less all evening and I take advantage of a break to appreciate the landscape. It is quiet and despite the rain making the adventure complicated and less peaceful, I am glad to be there. I even attend my first “sunset” with a few pink clouds. Despite the rain, it was the most beautiful day since the start of the hike.

Nothing is predictable here. The Scottish climate changes constantly with a furious fixation on rain. Playing greatly with my limits. I wake up at 6am, my tent still dry. Lesson learned, I repack everything quickly. Big black clouds are looming on the horizon and I barely have time to eat a cold breakfast when it starts to rain again. 7.45 am, so I start walking. The trail cross the mountain “moor”. It is raining and the wind whistles in my ears. The creators of the path once had the good idea to make it full of stones. Walking is painful and my blister on the little toe increases the difficulty. Barely an hour’s walk and I am flat. I don’t know if it is the fatigue, the wind, the rain or the stony path that is going up gently but surely but I can’t take it anymore. The weight of the bag laminates my shoulders again.

I walk the moor, desert, green, mountainous, magnificent. But also very inhospitable. It is raining. A lot. And I walk like a robot drawing on my last forces. It has been raining for almost four days now. I cross with one goal. Reach the other side. The Glencoe Mountain Resort. My body moves forward on its own. My mind is entrenched. It casts a call to the sun, a lament for hours under my skull. But the sun, which pierces sometimes, is no match for the mass of waterlogged clouds that has been passing over the region for days. This is apparently one of the areas of Scotland where it rains the most. I do believe it.

A torrential rain finally fell on me during my last hour of walking. I am in a somewhat secondary state, divided between a state of despair accentuated by a throbbing pain in my skull and my back and a desire not to be put down and to put things into perspective. The Glencoe Mountain Resort finally appears and I can hardly tell myself that I will again pay £60 for a small hut (for 4 people. Being alone, I always get caught up with the prices) but I refuse to stay outside. My budget is flying away at high speed but this is again a good lesson. I have to know how to face the unexpected and accept the decisions I make. So I take shelter in a kind of little hobbit hole covered with false grass and sink in a strange sleep, my body a little sick. When I wake up later I realize that several people have decided to camp despite the rain in the small campsite next door and I regret for an instant my choice to have paid for comfort. I could certainly have camped too. But not today. Today on the side of the desolate mountain, I feel sick and abandoned. I feel deeply alone.

Beinn Dorain on the left and Loch Tulla on the right.

Bivouac in the rain.

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Chapter V. Confrontations

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One foot after the other

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