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Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking

Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking


Postby moodytillnoon » Fri May 27, 2022 8:59 am

Date walked: 12/05/2021

Time taken: 7 days

Distance: 150 km

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Philosophy

‘I am torturing myself for no reason,’ I said while waiting for water to boil in a little overheated wooden pod I booked for the night before I knew how drenched I was about to be.
‘You think this is torture?’ Ewan asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, thinking about the pinky toes in excruciating pain as I limped across the room to grab my collapsible cup.


Yet there's a reason why people pack tents, sleeping bags and mats, a few days worth of food, a change of clothes and, if they're daredevil enough, a few unessential items, such as a pillow or a book, and venture out with a heavy backpack into the nature to walk long-distance trails.

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You don't have to pay much to avoid such travail and hire a company instead to carry your bag and set up your tent. Some choose to pack a light backpack and sleep indoors every night. And some would say that this is not what the West Highland Way is all about. This is not just a walk in a park in your favourite sneakers. You have to carry your own burden and sleep in the woods if you want to do it the right way. After all, Tom Hunter created the trail to protect the east shore of Loch Lomond from development and human interruption. So the least you can do as a waywalker is to immerse yourself in nature, really get to know the trail, the path, the trees around you, the sounds during the day and night. And I think that's where the spirit of the trail is. Not the hotels and restaurants you find along the way, although they do make the experience a little less wild and a little more comfortable.

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Being outdoors full time is a very different way of getting to know a country. Scotland is still exciting to me, undiscovered and so breathtakingly beautiful it makes me cry. Walking is slow and gives you so much time to think, feel, observe; you get to see everything, be fully present, unrushed and even talk to locals or other walkers. I missed out on so much when I was behind the driving wheel a few months ago. I wanted to creep at a snail speed, to touch everything and stop on every bend, but I couldn't. There was always someone behind my car pressuring me to keep up the speed and too scarce (for my needs) places to stop.

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I loved the idea of getting to know Scotland on a more personal level. I also reminisced about the last and only long-distance walk between Alaska and Canada and how much closer it brought me to the environment I wanted to soak all in and keep in my memory forever. On that trail, I occasionally came across informational panels that would tell me about the history of the place, its importance or how it looked back then when the trail first appeared during the Gold Rush. With this in mind, I got a little book about the West Highland Way to understand better what these places are that I am seeing. Much less history than I expected (the trail is only 41 years old and takes you through the gorgeous nature rather than historical locations), even so, it was interesting to learn about the surroundings.

Besides the curiosity and awe for Scotland which inspired the walk, I had a list of tasks I wanted to accomplish during the time alone away from everything. Figuring things out, coming up with ideas and organising my scattered mind. One task, for example, was to come up with guidelines of how I am going to use technology and for what purpose. On the day I started the walk, I began digital detox, which, I expected, would make the whole process just a little easier once I am back. So far it worked. Currently, my mind is at peace and so quiet compared to the noise I endured before the trail. It could just be the time off, being outdoors or disconnecting from the hundred directions companies, emails, articles and neverending to-do lists are pulling me in, or maybe a combination of all three that freed me from the feeling of urgency, overwhelm and noise.

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Even though I kept bringing my thoughts to the things I should think about (to avoid useless circulation of the same thoughts and boring myself to death), I mostly focused on immediate experiences: pain in the toes, shoulder and hip soreness, the weight of the pack, tiredness, mile counting, step counting (somehow it helps to tackle steep climbs), watching the time, searching for waymarkers and occasional self-nudges to take a look above and around, not just down at my feet. But I can’t blame myself for looking down most of the time - if you don’t, you might slip and fall and break all your teeth while being far from a town in any direction. That was sometimes a spine-chilling thought, and on the other hand, also a pleasant one - to find these places where you are surrounded by the wilderness and might not see another person for hours despite thousands of people walking the same way. Who knows for how much longer we will have places like this?

So if you can make the WHW feel more like a long walk in the park, sleep in a warm soft hotel bed at the end of each day, avoid rubbed off shoulders, hips and back, blistered toes and feeling cold at night or in the morning, then why I am happy I did this the hard way?

‘You seem to have a lot of doubts about this,’ Ewan noticed.
‘A lot! I think I have enough determination and resiliency. I just need to prove it to myself,’ I replied.


Struggle makes you grow, makes you strong, proves that you can do more than you thought you ever could and not only improves your physical health (even if it tears you apart at first) but makes you and your mind so much more resilient. These experiences make me feel like I am truly living, experiencing everything this life has to offer with my own skin and not just through the screen. Memories, strength, empowerment, courage, achievement stay with you. We, as humans, have magnificent incredibly powerful bodies that are more capable than we give credit for, and movement, physical experiences is what feeds our soul and mind, especially if your whole world is mostly virtual. In the life of a nearly 24/7 sedentary lifestyle, movement is a gift to one’s mental health.

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I chose not to spoil the pleasure of discovery so I didn’t look at photos, articles or videos about the WHW; I only collected some basic information, such as probable wild camping spots, Loch Lomond camping management zone map, the distances, suggested itineraries and other factual information. I think it is best not to know too much and just go with an open mind. It’s too damn easy to talk yourself out of everything, and the more research you do, the less adventurous an experience becomes and the more reasons you may find to postpone and stay home to watch Netflix instead. I advise you to stop reading now if you feel that you’d like to walk the 96 miles (154 km) of the West Highland Way with an open mind and no preconception.

The Walk

The very first thing you have to accept is that you’ll get rained on. You’d be very lucky not to, but who can trust their luck this much in western Scotland? The weather forecast promised a full week of rain. I considered postponing the walk, but you can postpone it indefinitely and still get caught in rain. You have to be ready for bad weather and be grateful for every sunny day you get along the way. I didn’t want to wait for a second longer after a full year of mostly waiting for the lockdown to end, for things to come back to life, for my freedom to move. There’s been too much waiting and too little doing, so I had to go now.

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One of the rainy days was especially miserable, so I booked a wooden pod to dry off my shoes, clothes and spirit. I spent most of that day with my feet elevated to regain my ability to walk. And on that day, I questioned whether I should continue or just go home.

‘How would you feel if you went home now?’ Ewan inquired.
‘Like all of this was for nothing… I want… I have to finish the walk,’ I replied.


And it got easier the next day, and even better the next.

The first couple of days were torturous. The first part from Milngavie to Drymen was easy, flat, sunny and very short. But my shoulders were burning from pain caused by the unfamiliar weight of my backpack. Nothing I own meets current outdoor trends or lightweightness standards. Simple stuff, basic things, familiar items. It’s only about a week. I didn’t look like a hiker at all and my shoes were laughable. However, I am still convinced that all you need is your legs to complete the walk. Everything extra is just giving in to consumerism and peer pressure. However, for my next trip, I really have to get better shoes… (she’s been saying for over a year.)

As with most of my adventures, I simply decide to do something and then do it as soon as I can. I didn’t look for a company and didn’t google, whether I can walk the trail alone. Of course, I can. The only problem you might face is getting bored of your thoughts, but having company does not necessarily mean that you’ll have a much better time. To make the transition into living outdoors easier, I booked a campsite for the first night, leaving the rest of the walk flexible. There I met a few other waywalkers and one of them became my on and off companion, whom I kept meeting at various campsites and points along the way; someone I talked about the day and the trail, someone I discussed the future of the planet and humanity over the coffee, someone who, just like me, collected rocks and had the same ideas about photography, someone who suffered through the same paths and made my experience more real. It’s not only difficult for me, the underdressed one. It was difficult for everyone, despite the gear. And I think I had fewer blisters.

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The next day I began about a mile before Drymen and walked about a mile beyond Rowardennan, making this one of the longest days to reach the legal wild camping area. By the end of the day, I was ready to crash anywhere. The second part of the trail takes either through Conic Hill or a flat alternative route around it. I choose the hill, and soon I had my first sight of Loch Lomond, which felt quite special thinking that it took me about 14 miles to get to.

On the third day, I walked from a mile past Rowardennan to a mile or so past Inverarnan. I didn't rush to leave Loch Lomond that morning. Instead, I enjoyed the scenery, ate porridge on a rock on the shore, spoke to other walkers. I also made more than usual stops and reached the evening camping place at 7 pm, making this another very long day. In addition to that, my little WHW book described this as the hardest section of the trail and, although it didn't look daunting on the elevation map, it took me through a narrow path next to the lake across rocks and boulders, steep climbs and downhills. The path itself was uncomfortable, slow, exhausting and required extra caution (there's an easy alternative route but I don't think that's the original WHW path).

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The 4th day took me from Inverarnan to Tyndrum. This was the day I had a warm pod booked, so I wanted to make it there as early as I can and take the rest of the day off. This was a rainy day. One particular town (I don't recall the name, nor I took a photo of the panel where it was said) is the wettest in Scotland. By the looks of it, that was certainly true. About 2 miles before Tyndrum my already painful toes felt an even sharper pain which made me think about catching a ride to town. I really would have used this opportunity if anyone was passing by. Sadly, I had to slowly walk to Tyndrum where I spent the rest of the day in my sauna pod (I overheated it myself). A few hours into my rest, I saw my trail buddy pitching his tent just outside my pod and invited him for tea and a chat.

The next morning I took my sweet time to leave the campsite. I used every bit of time to rest. I slowly limped to town while testing my feet, got a cup of coffee and walked around evaluating whether I can continue. This morning I was determined to keep walking, but my body had to allow me. The next stop is the Bridge of Orchy 8 miles away, and if I feel like I can't keep going, that's the place where I can catch a train home. Although I walked slowly, I caught up to a group of people I had a chat with before reaching Tyndrum. It's exciting to see familiar faces and share what happened since the last time we saw each other. Many hours of rest did so much good that I kept walking until I reached Inveroran, had a big well-deserved meal in the bar, and pitched my tent 400m outside of it in a gorgeous wild camping spot which soon filled up with tents on both sides of the bridge.

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The 6th day took me from Inveroran to a mile before Kinlochleven through Kingshouse (Glencoe!). The section from Inveroran to Kingshouse was a pure pleasure. I was fairly slow, but I didn't feel the weight of my pack anymore, my feet were no longer hurting as much, the trail was pleasant and oh so beautiful it was easy to forget the physical needs and sensations.

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Past the Kingshouse the trail continued winding between mountains, gifting me the views into the Glencoe valley and surrounding peaks. I've loved these places since the first time I saw them. The trail led to and across the Devil's Staircase - the highest point of the trail (550 m). I was much stronger now, my pack a little lighter and I had a quick lunch break right before the climb. I am in Glencoe and in no rush to leave.

The climb itself looked scarier when I was looking at the elevation map. In reality, I took my time, enjoyed the views and prayed for the rain behind me to go the other way. It didn't. I got caught in a downpour, everything got soaked again, but I didn't mind anymore... Tomorrow is the last day. I can now take anything this trail has for me.

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On my last morning on the WHW trail, I woke up a mile before Kinlochleven. It's a small town and I didn't think I'll find a good place to camp, so I stopped as soon as I saw a decent location and enjoyed the last night completely alone. I woke up earlier than usual hoping to catch up to my trail buddy in the town and let him know about today's plan. We discussed the idea of camping somewhere right before reaching Fort William, make this day shorter and catch a train the next day, which offers the best views in Scotland. However, after the planning session in the evening, I couldn't find a good place to spend the night so I adjusted my plan to catching a bus that evening instead of a train the next morning. I felt excited about sleeping in my bed again.

Another steep, what seemed endless, climb after leaving Kinlochleven. The day was sunny, beautiful and I was feeling excited. I began meeting more people, people I haven't seen before, people who didn't carry heavy backpacks. However, I kept walking with a spring in my step. The last day, the last day, I'm going home today. I am going to reach the end of the trail. And it wasn't all that bad. The pain and tiredness felt like a distant nightmare in the face of sunny Glencoe.
Upon reaching Fort William the trail lost its mountainous charm and became more hilly, however, I now constantly was accompanied by Ben Nevis as if it was inviting me to climb that too... One day, darling, not now. The trail felt busy with even more people popping up from who knows where. Sometimes I'd meet people who remember me but I don't remember them. Smile and act as if you do.

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The very last section of the WHW is designed to kill your feet. Really. It takes through paved roads and sidewalks. This is where I felt the most exhaustion and started developing new blisters. After walking in nature, in beautiful forests, the shores of lakes and rivers, on top and between mountains I could not believe that this last section is the WHW trail. I kept checking the GPS map on my phone, searching for signposts and other walkers and felt lost. I tried to assure myself that the last signpost I saw indeed led this way and I didn't miss anything else. The map said I am in the right place... I guess it's just meant to finish you off before you head to a hotel or a train. And then I saw the end. That was a surprise; I didn't expect it to be here, or now, or be this quiet... I expected people, celebrating their journey and adventure. But I was alone next to a busy roundabout.

But I made it! I was there! I walked for 95 miles! WALKED!

Now every step was torment. I wandered around the town for a little while but then returned to the guy with sore feet. After a while, my trail buddy showed up. It was nearly the time to catch a bus, so instead of a celebratory pint we had a celebratory orange, talked about the journey. It was wonderful to share this moment with someone else and this was a perfect end to the adventure. I walked to the bus station happy, completely fulfilled, tired and excited to be home soon. There was no joy of reaching the goal, though. I was not overwhelmed with emotions. This was not the beginning or the end to me. The journey continues and this was just a tiny part of it.

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moodytillnoon
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Re: Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking

Postby Alteknacker » Fri May 27, 2022 11:11 pm

A great read :clap: :clap: :clap: . All who have done multiple day walks will recognise your descriptions of the highs and the lows of this somewhat insane activity.

I guess the next challenge for you will be the Cape Wrath Trail.... :D
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Re: Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking

Postby Scottk » Fri May 27, 2022 11:39 pm

That is the old finish you are posing at, the new one is a bench in the town centre-even more road walking,
I think you should give into consumerism and get yourself some lighter gear as it sounds like you struggled with the weight.
Check out the TGO challenge if you would like to do something a bit different. Or the CWT as suggested. I saw a guy starting it the other Sunday with 27kg in his 2 backpacks!
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Re: Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking

Postby rockhopper » Sat May 28, 2022 6:13 pm

Well done on getting to the end - sounded quite a challenge at times. Would echo the above - a great read - cheers :)
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Re: Alone on WHW: personal growth through walking

Postby Sgurr » Sat May 28, 2022 10:55 pm

Good for you, especially in that weather. I felt that I had probably appropriated all the WHW's quota of good weather for this year. Hope your feet have recovered.
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