West Highland Way, Part 3: Miles And Miles And Miles

“How is your knee?”

“Which one?”

“The bad one silly.”

“Bad.”

“Oh. Is your other one bothering you too?”

“Yep. It feels worse.”

“Oh. You gonna make it?”

“Yep.”

Thirty six days ago I re-injured my left knee when I fell off an easy boulder problem which I was in the process of setting at my day job (details here). Steph and I had already made all of our plans and booked our accommodation for hiking the West Highland Way by that point. Putting it off until later in the year wasn’t an option. Besides, we really wanted to go before midge season started. That and, statistically speaking anyway, May is the driest time in this part of Scotland.

Since the re-injury I’ve had to stop climbing (and cycling) altogether, and only managed three short and easy day hikes and three gym sessions for my legs. I wear a (very stinky) neoprene sleeve over my knee whenever I leave the flat, and I have to be super mindful of every single step I take. Eighteen or so mile into our first day on the West Highland Way and it’s really no surprise that I’m hurting. But lets wander back to the beginning of the day, back to Milngavie, and back into the (statistically speaking less likely to be coming down) rain.

It has been raining all but non-stop since we arrived in Milngavie yesterday. Raining hard. The forecast is calling for more of the same over the next few days, as well as snow further north on the hills. Statistics be damned, this is Scotland.

Breakfast done and our room key turned in, there is nothing left to do but put our hoods up and walk the few minutes to the starting point of the trail, a short grey obelisk in the middle of the pedestrianised section of downtown Milngavie. In turn we photograph each other standing beside the obelisk then quickly zip everything up tight against the rain and make our way down the flight of steps which starts the trail. We’re on the way.

Already soaked with rain, Steph stops for a photo at the obelisk marking the southern starting point - or terminus if coming from the north - of the West Highland Way in Milngavie, Scotland.
Already soaked with rain, Steph stops for a photo at the obelisk marking the southern starting point – or terminus if coming from the north – of the West Highland Way in Milngavie, Scotland.
All waterproofed and ready to go.
All waterproofed and ready to go.

“What are we doing today?”

“Walking.”

“Cool. What about tomorrow?”

“Walking.”

As patently obvious as it may be, “walking” is our little mantra for this journey. I ask the question and Steph gives the one word answer. It’s all about the simplicity of just being and doing something fully, with no external agendas to distract from and dilute the moment. If it’s raining, we walk; sunny, we walk; if we’re cold, wet, tired and sore, we walk; no matter what, we walk. Ahhhhh, sweet, peaceful simplicity.

Okay, in the interest of honesty I’ll admit to having one other thing on my mind today; Glengoyne Distillery. Located about seven miles into the walk, Glengoyne occupies a picturesque spot at the base of Dumgoyne and makes a perfect place to stop, dry off, and snag some goodies.

Glengoyne Distillery sits pretty as a picture at the base of Dumgoyne and right along the West Highland Way.
Glengoyne Distillery sits pretty as a picture at the base of Dumgoyne and right along the West Highland Way.
Drymen can wait!
Drymen can wait!

“Which one are you getting?”

“Uh, all three.”

“Of course!”

Weeks ago I had convinced myself that it would be rather stupid – especially in light of my injury and questionable fitness – to purchase a full sized bottle of Glengoyne and carry it 89 miles over six and a half days, no matter how much I love my whisky. What I will do, however, is buy one each of the three 5CL miniatures they offer; the 10 year old, 15 year old and 18 year old. Perfectly sized for walkers! Oh, and I’ll be having a box of the fudge too please.

Leaving the distillery behind (so sad), our next waypoint is Drymen, where we plan to have a proper pub grub lunch. The trail meanders along through small settlements and rolling countryside, never straying far from adjacent roadways. Oddly enough the highlight of this section comes while trudging along a long stretch where the trail and the road are one, a logistical necessity I know but still rather tedious. We top out a short incline and are greeted to our first views of the mythical, the legendary, Loch Lomond.

Scottish Blackface grazing on fresh spring grass above the waters of Loch Lomond.
Scottish Blackface grazing on fresh spring grass above the waters of Loch Lomond.

We both manage to snap a few pics between spurts of sporadic rain before continuing on to Drymen and lunch at The Clachan.

The Clachan in Drymen, Scotland, serving ale and grub since 1734.
The Clachan in Drymen, Scotland, serving ale and grub since 1734.

“Why is everyone so dressed up?”

“It’s Saturday lunch.”

With our backpacks, muddy boots and sweaty/rain-soaked appearance, we stand out like a Black Panther at a KKK rally. There are no other hikers in the sight and we are – by at least 20 years or so – the youngest couple in the place. Normally this is the kind of thing which might bother Steph, but I think she’s hungry enough to not care today.

Mmmmm, alcohol.
Mmmmm, alcohol.

The staff certainly don’t begrudge us our dishevelled appearance and serve up a fine lunch. We’ll need the fuel in our bellies for the remaining miles across the hill to Balmaha.

Speaking of miles, Steph and I have noticed that there is much conflicting information regarding distances along the West Highland Way. Sign posts and maps and guide books and online accounts all throw different numbers at us. It seems strange that in the era of GPS enabled phones and Google Earth we can’t come to a consensus on simple distance information. I suppose at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter; we just walk until we get where we’re going anyway.

What we do know for sure is that between where we are (Drymen) and where we’re going (Balmaha) lies a small obstacle known as Conic Hill. The contour lines on the map don’t look too bad for the uphill portion of the trail; It’s the downhill – and my knees – which have me worried.

Leaving Drymen we’re forced to walk another long stretch of roadway due to forestry work surrounding the actual trail. When we finally get back onto the trail we’re treated to more brilliant views of Loch Lomond and – eventually, inevitably – Conic Hill.

Forestry works along the West Highland Way above Loch Lomond.
Forestry works along the West Highland Way above Loch Lomond.

“Do you want the trekking poles?”

“Um, sure, guess I better.”

We’ve only got one (borrowed) set of trekking poles between us for the trip, and to this point Steph has had them. We considered buying our own pair as well, but I’ve already got a nice set of Leki Super Makalus sitting in my mom’s basement. Of course this does us no good, seeing as my mom’s basement is several thousand miles away in Tennessee, but I just couldn’t bring myself to part with the cash. Instead I’ll be parting with a small sliver of pride (a theme which will undoubtedly continue in the days to come) by taking the poles from my wife for the steepest section of our first day on the trail. I am slightly consoled by the fact that I’m carrying the heavier bag, but at roughly 12kg it’s hardly a back-breaker.

Trekking poles at the ready it's time to climb.
Trekking poles at the ready it’s time to climb.

The climb up the shoulder of Conic Hill is about as hard as I had expected. There is a spur trail to the actual summit of the hill, but once again I choke down a bit of pride and keep on towards Balmaha. No side trips for us today I’m afraid.

We do manage to dodge rain drops long enough for a couple of quick pics before the fun part, the downhill, begins.

The West Highland Way descends steeply from the flanks of Conic Hill towards Loch Lomond and the village of Balmaha.
The West Highland Way descends steeply from the flanks of Conic Hill towards Loch Lomond and the village of Balmaha.
Tired enough at this point that this is how the world looked to me.
Tired enough at this point that this is how the world looked to me.

“How is your knee?”

“Which one?”

“The bad one silly.”

“Bad.”

“Oh. Is your other one bothering you too?”

“Yep. It feels worse.”

“Oh. You gonna make it?”

“Yep.”

And make it we do. The descent from Conic Hill into Balmaha is a painfully slow process for us. Fatigue has taken ahold of our bodies and we both have minor – but scary – slips which cause us to fall to the ground. Every step demands total concentration, lest our trip ends right here on day one. Life doesn’t get much simpler than this; step, pole, step, pole, repeat. This is what we’ve come for, and we’re sure getting it.

I swear to you I’ve never seen a building as beautiful as the Balmaha Bunkhouse in my life! Shangri-frickin-La I tell ya!

Oh sweet paradise on earth!
Oh sweet paradise on earth!

We get settled in, have quick showers and walk (WALK!) over to the Oak Tree Inn for dinner. I swear to you I’ve never seen a pub/restaurant as beautiful in my life! I’m pretty sure the food is excellent, although after 20 miles (or was it just 18) of walking my standards are more than a little compromised.

I finish off my meal by sampling a couple of new drams, both being expressions from Tullibardine, a distillery which I’ve actually never heard of. Both whiskies are fantastic. I’ll definitely have to check out more from them.

Don't let my face fool you, I'm well happy with a whisky in hand.
Don’t let my face fool you, I’m well happy with a whisky in hand.

Back in our cozy room we both summon up the last of our physical and mental energy to organise our gear for tomorrow. We also both pop some Ibuprofen, hoping it will help un-swell our swollen bits and ease some of the pain. Either way, I doubt I’ll have much trouble sleeping tonight.

“Steph.”

“Yes Bob.”

“What are we doing tomorrow?”

“Walking.”

Simple as that.

A few more pics from the day.

Shrouded in misty rain, Dumgoyne rises in the distance above the waters of Craigallian Loch.
Shrouded in misty rain, Dumgoyne rises in the distance above the waters of Craigallian Loch.
Situated as it is right on the West Highland Way, Glengoyne Distillery makes a perfect place to get off the trail, dry off for a bit, and enjoy a fine single malt whisky.
Situated as it is right on the West Highland Way, Glengoyne Distillery makes a perfect place to get off the trail, dry off for a bit, and enjoy a fine single malt whisky.
Glengoyne whisky fudge kept us going. The box didn't even last until the end of day 1.
Glengoyne whisky fudge kept us going. The box didn’t even last until the end of day 1.
Keep if classy Scotland.
Keep if classy Scotland.
It's all downhill from here on up!
It’s all downhill from here on up!

2 thoughts on “West Highland Way, Part 3: Miles And Miles And Miles

Add yours

  1. Did the West Highland Way a few years back & that was enough to grab my interest. But your writing and your photography especially, are enough to ensure I keep coming back to your blog

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: