“Hiking teaches you patience” is a platitude used to expound the merits of long-distance walking, as well as a brazen rejection of advances in industry that have allowed us to escape the unhappy fate of our ancestors who were forced to travel grueling distances by foot.
On Scotland’s West Highland Way, the truism meant patience for the swarms of midges that descended when I stopped to catch my breath or put on a raincoat, patience for bruised feet, patience for the cruel final hours of walking each day when the scenery had lost its luster, and patience for the grinning Scots who thought the whole ordeal was about as challenging as nipping down to the store for milk.
Yet patience was likely the only thing that brought me to the end of a five-day trek through the Scottish highlands, a journey through endless green countryside, down the banks of Loch Lomond, zigzagging over mountain tops, and hobbling down rocky old military roads. Patience, and perhaps the lack of available bus routes or other means of escape.
I had prepared for the trip by following a training regimen that included sauntering around the flat streets of Berlin for a few hours, eating pasta, and watching the film Braveheart– the last of which was probably the most useful.
The kindly Scottish locals along the various stops were a hardy bunch, and totally unimpressed by a day of 24 kilometers up-and-down-and-up-and-down. Torrents of rain bounced right off them and they hardly batted an eye when the skies parted, a reflection of their general attitude. At the end of a long day’s walk, they casually inquired whether we might have come from several more towns over, as though an additional 20 kilometers would be something we should have considered.
One of the biggest unforeseen challenges of the trip was the constant presence of the devil’s sneakiest soldiers on earth: midges. The feathery clouds of tiny flies seemed benign enough at first, but soon revealed their evil intentions. I had imagined a leisurely stroll past mooing cows and magnificent views, taking breaks by the side of the water for some light reading or a picnic. Yet it soon became clear our only choice was to keep moving; each time we stopped to adjust our gear midges would descend within 20 seconds, leaving itchy red bites that turned into hard purple bumps after a few days. We needed protection, and fast. Yet finding a drug store with insect repellant in the sprawling expanses of nature seemed unlikely.
Enter our unlikely savior. We came across a bottle of Avon “Skin So Soft,” a body spray marketed under the somewhat disconcerting hypothetical scenario, “Want the moisturizing benefit of jojoba oil but don’t have time to bathe?” Now, I don’t go in for homeopathy – despite the best efforts of every German Apotheke – and given the choice I’d be bathing in maximum-strength DEET. However it turns out this “gentle oil” is not only great for the hygienically challenged, but also a death sentence for midges. They land on your exposed skin and drop dead upon contact with the stuff. Perhaps not something you’d want to incorporate into your long-term beauty routine but a godsend on the West Highland Way.
There’s no denying the endless beauty of the Scottish highlands, nor the equally satisfying culinary rewards for days of bodily abuse: scones and cream, fish and chips, stews, and – my new favorite – a Scottish pudding made with oats, berries and whiskey called cranachan.
As we closed in on our destination, I began to feel a sense of great personal accomplishment. I chatted to the owner of a hostel in the last rest town before we faced the final and longest day. He mentioned we had arrived just in time for the race. The race? In retrospect we had seen an unusually high number of people with rippling muscles running down the trail in–oh, my. A sinking feeling washed over me, and the extra whiskeys, ibuprofen, and grit I’d contributed to the effort suddenly seemed laughable. These people had been running the entire 150 kilometers, an ultramarathon along the full length of the trail. So much for any pride in a pansy 5-day walk.
If you’re cut from the same cloth as me, I highly recommend our return train ride from Fort William to Glasgow. It runs a similar course as the West Highland Way and offers stunning views of the countryside, stopping on its way at a train station in the veritable middle of nowhere where there is nothing but a platform and tea room. Ahh, civilization.