An amazing journey that I won't soon forget!
13.09.2015 - 23.09.2015 12 °C
On September 1, 2015, just after finishing up our work away in Carlingcott, England, we hit a wall. Thankfully this was not a literal wall, rather it was a figurative wall, one that represented us not knowing what we wanted to do next in our travels. To be honest, we hit this “wall” a few weeks earlier as we began discussing what our next steps would be and we both had no answers as to what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go. It was a weird feeling to say the least. We were in the middle of a world adventure and yet we had no motivation for the next destination. I tend to believe that this is not uncommon amongst travellers, especially after being on the road for almost 9 months. Ideas were tossed around about what we could do next but after all of our discussions we decided to settle on contacting our cousins who live in Shrewsbury, England to see if we could come and chill with them for a bit while we sorted out what would come next. With nothing coming to us as a “must do” or “want to do” we decided that rather then spending money and travelling to a place just for the sake of travelling there, we would take time to recharge our batteries and have some conversations about what we really wanted to do next. We are extremely fortunate to have family so close by that we get along great with and who had room to take us in for bit.
When we said goodbye to the farm, it was off to the train station for a trip to Shrewsbury to meet up with Allie and Alex. Shrewsbury was a familiar place to us as we had visited there before and as soon as we jumped off the train and saw the smiling faces of Allie and Alex we both immediately felt comfortable and relaxed in our decision. After a couple of days of catching up with our cousins and touring around the town on our own, I knew what I wanted to do next. For some time now I had been thinking about hiking, camping and being in the outdoors. I had done some research in my downtime while on the farm and came across the West Highland Way hike which runs north to south in Scotland, from Milngavie to Fort Willam. The hike totals 96 miles from start to finish, takes about 7 days to complete and is an excellent opportunity to see the highlands in all their beauty. Now that I knew what I really wanted to do, the next decision to make was whether this would be a solo adventure or if we would be sharing this experience together. After some healthy conversations it was decided that I would take this journey on my own. For me I felt that this was something that I needed to do for myself and we both felt that the time apart would be beneficial for both of us as we had been hip to hip for almost 9 months now. Being hunkered down in Shrewsbury with our cousins presented the perfect opportunity to undertake this adventure as I would be able to take time to gear up for the hike and when I was gone Sherry would have a comfortable place to stay on her own while taking on her own adventures around England. With Sherry’ cousins heading off to Canada for a long awaited 16 day vacation, Sherry would be able to keep an eye on the place for them as well which was a nice side benefit of our plans as well. Immediately after making this decision and starting into more in depth planning I felt invigorated again. I had a smile on my face and almost all my energy was being put towards my adventure. The incredible part was that Sherry was right there alongside me patiently waiting in stores as I sorted through various tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and other things I would need to complete the hike. One of the biggest priorities for me in travelling this year was to rediscover what my passions are in life and this hike was a big step in the right direction. When I was young I loved being outdoors. Whether it was hiking in the bushes, fishing, biking all over the countryside, camping with my family and friends or just climbing a tree for the heck of it, I loved being outdoors. Somewhere along the line in life this passion for the outdoors began to gradually be neglected. It was not by choice and certainly was not done on a conscious level, but nonetheless, it became a micro aspect of my life. It was now time to bring that passion back to the forefront and rediscover what it really means to me. Would I go on the hike and feel nothing towards the outdoors when I was done or would I have my passion reignited - would I even finish the hike at all? These were just a few of the many questions that raced through my mind as I went through gearing up for not just a hike, but a reintroduction to what I believed to be an area of passion in my life.
On Sunday September 13, Sherry and I set out for the Shrewsbury train station, where I would board a train headed for Glasgow, which would be my overnight stop before catching a bus in the morning to Milngavie, the southern tip of the West Highland Way. It would be 10 days before I would see Sherry again as I had budgeted some extra days into my travels in the event I needed to take more than the typical 7 days that most people complete the trail in. Sunglasses hid a teary goodbye at the train station and I was off….on my own. It was a bit of a scary thought to be on my own, but at the same time it was invigorating as I felt a sense of anticipation charging through me. For the record, I had never done anything like this before. Sure I had camped when I was younger with my parents and yes I had been on short day hikes, but never had I taken on a long distance hike that would involve rough camping and cooking for myself. I was outside of my comfort zone and it was perfect! I have decided to share the bulk of the detail about my hike through the pictures that will be uploaded in sync with the post and I will try to keep things short and sweet here. I will start by saying that the hike was everything I was looking for and more. As I sit here on a train bound for Bordeaux, France, I still get excited when I think back on it. I managed to complete the entire trail in 7 days, which I am really proud of as in order to do this there is one day where you must complete 20 miles of hiking in order to stay on track with your timeline. 20 miles may not seem all that much to some, but when you are carrying a pack with close to 50 lbs of clothing, food and camping gear in it, that 20 miles takes on a whole new perspective. When I started out struggling to get my pack settled during the first 5 km’s, I started to think that I would just be happy if I finished at all. This was just a minor mental blip on the radar though as with every mile passed i began to grow more and more confident in my abilities. What really helped the miles to pass by was the interchanging company that would join up with me throughout the days. At times I would find myself charging along solo, while other times I would be accompanied by 1, 2, 3 or even up 6 other people. These interactions were what shaped the most unexpected aspects of the hike for me. The camaraderie that was instantly developed between total strangers was simply incredible. One minute I would be sitting by myself on top of a mountain, then I would be over having tea with friends from Germany. I would go from hiking solo for miles and then out of nowhere be met with smiles and cheers as I stumbled on the group of Canadians I had been hiking with a couple days before. I met so many cool people along the trail. There was Mattias from Austria who had just completed medical school and who I set up camp with the first night. Matt and I would frequently cross paths in the evenings when we were setting up camp. Then there were the Canadians - two separate groups of them - one from Alberta and the other from Salt Spring, B.C.. These guys and girls were all fantastic companions on the trail and I am so glad we had the chance to meet up. I also ran into Thomas from Poland who was completing the trail in just 4 days which was absolutely crazy if you ask me and then there was Christian and Jana. These two are long time friends of each other from Germany and I frequently found myself hiking with them since we both had the same time line of finishing in 7 days and just because we really enjoyed each others company. We had lots of laughs between the three of us and I know for sure that we will never forget the gruelling finish to day 2’s hike which had us all muttering curse words in our native tongues. I met many more people from all over along the trail and to me, the beautiful views aside, this was the most amazing part of the adventure. I found myself so relaxed and engaged with each new friendship. There was no hesitation engaging in a conversation with a stranger, which was somewhat of a new thing for me. It was nice to just feel comfortable in my own skin and to just throw myself out there without a care of what the other person may say or think about me.
Getting back to the details of the hike itself, as I said I managed to complete the 96 mile trek in 7 days. Most days I would hit the trail around 9:00 am and would be at my campsite between 4:00 and 6:00 pm. I rough camped the first two nights, stayed in campgrounds other nights and one night, after hiking 20 miles, I decided to treat myself to a stay in a “hobbit hut” at the base of a remote ski hill (check out the pictures to see what this was about). I could have camped here but the midges were thick and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with them. As for the weather, well i must have had a horseshoe still shoved up my backside from Ireland as it was incredible. I had a few drizzles of rain on day 1 and day 7, but other than that, any rain that came down happened at night after I had my tent set up and I was snuggled up inside. The temperatures were all comfortable and even a bit hot at points. I ended up unloading some of the food from my pack and a few other things as I had overpacked a wee bit for this experience. This happened after day three and the lightened load (down to just over 40 lbs) made the rest of my travels much more enjoyable. I was one of the few people on the trail who was carrying their own packs as many had opted to have their big bags shipped from destination to destination along the trail. I certainly can appreciate people taking advantage of that service (paid for but not too expensive) but I had taken the “all in” approach and had to do it as “au natural” as possible. The terrain is varied, with day 2 and 3 offering up some for the roughest paths passing along Loch Lomond. Hiking poles are recommended as I was glad to have mine to use when the days got long and each step got harder on my joints. By far, the further north you get, the more frequent and incredible the views get. For this reason, I would definitely suggest starting in the south and having your hard work rewarded by amazing views the closer you get to the finish line. Expansive views of mountain ranges and wide open bog lands reveal so much of the beauty in Northern Scotland. These views also serve as a welcome distractor to any aches/pains that you have incurred to that point and will keep you rolling on towards Fort William. I came across many people applying blister packs and hobbling along with weary legs throughout the days. I even came across one lady who decided that finishing was more important than here nice hiking boots so she made the choice to cut out the back of her boot so her blisters wouldn’t torment her anymore. I reached the finish line around 2:30 in the afternoon on day 7 and I did so completely on my own. I managed to hike the entire day on my own (15 miles) which was my plan for that day. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts and only be distracted by the incredible views around me. In order to manage this I set off early that morning. Having camp broke down and my first steps on the trail being just after 7:30 am I was out on my own. I had been carrying some Glenfidich single malt whiskey with me since the beginning of the trip and I finally found the perfect spot to enjoy it on the last day as I rounded the corner of a long trek between two mountain ranges and saw a nicely sheltered spot to sit and enjoy a wee dram. Sure it was 10:00 am, but I didn't care. With a tiny cigar lit, a wee dram poured into a metal cup resting on the rock beside me, I took in the amazing views around me and clinked my bottle against the cup before taking a sip of that delicious whiskey. Who was the cup for if I was drinking out of the bottle you might be asking. Well, I have been very fortunate to have some incredible people apart of my life who have helped me get to where I am today and unfortunately some of those people have passed on. I would like to think I was sharing a drink with them all, but in particular, this drink was especially being shared with my late Grandpa MacTavish who passed in May of 2007. As i trekked through the highlands I knew he was there all the way helping me along and I know he still is today, so I just wanted to stop and share that moment with him. It was perfect.
The West Highland Way will always have a special place in my heart. The beautiful views, incredibly kind strangers who I now share a unique bond with, the tough miles that tested my resolve and the quaint campsites where I rested up for another big day of hiking have all left a great impression on me. I could not get over the kindness of people, who, just hours before were complete strangers to me but who were “high fiving" and hugging me and on two occasions not taking no for an answer as they paid for my dinner. My promise to these people is to most certainly “pay it forward” on their behalf. The decision to hike on my own is one that I would not change if given the opportunity. Although i was beyond ecstatic to finally talk to Sherry when I got back into Glasgow, the solo experience was one that forced me to challenge myself in ways that I had not in the past and it also allowed me to learn even more about what I am capable of. When I left Fort William on my bus back to Glasgow I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the trail we passed along as we headed south. Memories from just days before came flooding back as I said goodbye to the trail and reminisced to myself about all feelings experienced while trudging along the West Highland Way. I would be remiss if I left this blog post without giving a shout out to Glasgow, which is where I spent 2 nights after returning from Fort William. I felt that two days was plenty of time to explore the sights and I highly recommend paying it a visit. This served as a nice time to really decompress from the hike and to take in what I had accomplished. The people of Scotland are very kind and Glasgow is no exception.
So, that is that. 96 miles of hiking in the bag and some of the most incredible memories of my first multi day hike are now apart of my perspective on life. This challenge was exactly what I was looking for and it delivered on so many different levels for me. I cannot recommend enough for people to take an opportunity like this for themselves. Think long and hard about what it is in life that really gets your mojo going and then create an adventure for yourself involving those elements. The rewards will most certainly out weigh any of the challenges that you experience getting to, and through, whatever you choose to go after!
Shayne and Sherry